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A Simple Request (1965)
While the family, of course, didn’t know it at the time, Nancy Poppen of Muskegon, Michigan was three days away from giving birth to their third child. One thing, however, was certain: She needed a nap.
She asked her husband, Sherm, to take their two girls outside so she could get some rest. It was Christmas Day 1965, and Wendy and Laurie were celebrating the joys of the holiday rather loudly.
That simple request would, ultimately, change the winter sports landscape.
“…It was a Real Good Time.”
The Muskegon shore line had been blanketed with a fresh, thick layer of powdery snow that Christmas Eve. To the disappointment of Sherm’s daughters, the blades on the sled he had pulled out were cutting through the snow and into the sand dune that sat behind the family home. Sherm returned to his workshop, grabbed a pair of kid’s skis and fastened them together, quickly creating a makeshift toy that he hoped would keep his girls entertained.
“The next thing I know, the kids aren’t sitting on it, they’re standing on it,” recalled Poppen some fifteen years later, “and I wanted to stand on it. And it was a real good time.”
Over the next few days, Sherm chose to tinker with the idea. Visiting the area thrift shops, he picked up some old water skis, aiming to allow the rider better balance while standing on the board and traveling down a hill.
Wendy, especially, loved testing out her Dad’s creations. Sherm’s boards quickly became the hit of the neighborhood.
At the suggestion of Sherm’s father, a rope was connected to the nose of the board. That way, a rider didn’t have to chase the board down a hill if he or she fell off. Nancy came up with a name for the toy. She called it “the Snurfer,” a term that partnered snow with surf. The run down the hill she called “Snurfing.”
“Now You Can Surf in the Snow” (1966)
Once satisfied with the design, Sherm Poppen contacted some friends at Brunswick Corporation. The company saw promise in his invention and decided to bring it to market. By Christmas Day 1966, it was available for purchase across America.
“Snurfer – Now you can surf in the snow,” proclaimed advertising headlines in various publications. Measuring four feet long and seven inches wide, the plywood board featured a distinctive yellow and black-striped enamel finish and retailed for $6.88.
World Snurfing Championships (1968-1973)
In 1968, a fraternity at Muskegon Community College announced plans to host the first annual World Snurfing Championship at Muskegon State Park. Registration that first year was only open to students from the college. Over two hundred spectators came out on a sunny Sunday afternoon to watch the fun. In 1969, the public at large was invited to compete in an expanded version of the event. This time, a crowd of over one thousand watched the fun at the state park. The 1970 championships drew a crowd estimated at six hundred.
But by 1973, Brunswick opted to get out of the business. JEM Corporation, comprised of three former employees of Brunswick, took over manufacture of the boards and refocused marketing of the boards toward a maturing demographic.
More Competitions (1973-1978)
JEM promoted competitions, while continuing to tinker with the board design. In 1978, the company announced $1,000 in prize money, spread among the top five finishers, as co-sponsor of the Muskegon Community College championships. Jim Trim of Grand Haven won $400 as the top finisher of the day, while Tom Pushaw – also from Grand Haven – grabbed $250 for finishing second.
The competition had been pushed from January into February due to blizzard conditions along the lake shore, but JEM officials were nonetheless impressed by the results. JEM announced continued sponsorship and planned promotion of snurfing contests across the nation.
The 1979 competition set in motion broad changes in the sport. Among the registrants for the 1979 competition at Muskegon State Park was a visitor from Vermont. Catching organizers off guard, the twenty-four-year-old wanted to compete riding a board of his own design.
Jake Burton Carpenter started the Burton Corporation in 1977. Competition organizers were in a quandary. If Carpenter won the competition riding his own board, it certainly wouldn’t please JEM, the manufacturer of the Snurfer and sponsor of the event.
Carpenter’s board design was fundamentally different from the Snurfer in that it allowed the rider to bind his front foot to the board via a rubber strap. The board also featured skegs to assist in control. Officials, in the eleventh hour, decided to split the competition into two. Carpenter would compete in an open division, for boards judged as non-regulation Snurfers. All riders of Snurfers competed in the Standard Division.
Ken Kampenga of North Muskegon won the Standard competition and received a $500 prize. Carpenter won the Open competition and earned $200 on the 312-foot course. To the relief of organizers, Kempenga’s downhill times topped Carpenter’s.
A March 1979 piece in the New York Times highlighted these new toys of winter.
“A number of manufacturers have combined the surfboard with the snow ski and come up with an exciting pastime, monoskiing.”
Beside the inexpensive Snurfer, now retailing for $15, and the Burton Board, priced at $88 with bindings, the Times reviewed the Winterstick, a design released to the marketplace by Dimitrije Milovich and Wayne Stoveken in 1974. Perhaps the sexiest, and certainly the most expensive of the products, this board was made from a glass epoxy laminate with a foam core. It measured over five feet in length, with a roundtail model priced at $190 and a swallowtail version running $250. The Times also mentioned a $35 device called the Snow Pro. Marketed out of Wisconsin, it allowed skateboarders to convert their summer ride into a board for use on a slope.
Snurfing Gives Way to Snowboarding (1980-1984)
In 1980, due to a lack of snow along the lake shore, the championships were moved to Pando Ski Lodge in Rockford, Michgian. Over the next few years, the snurfing competition grew in popularity and diversity, as more and more riders competed on a changing array of board designs by various manufacturers. The move to Pando was made permanent in 1981, as organizers cited concerns with handling a larger number of competitors and improved access for emergency vehicles in case of injury.
Since Poppen trademarked the Snurfer and Snurfing names, and because of the move, competitors were forced to refer to the growing sport in a different manner. Initially coined monoskiing by the media, soon it evolved into snow surfing, and then, finally, snowboarding.
“It was probably the dumbest thing I ever did,” recalled Poppen in recent years, referring to his move to control the trademark with regret. “There wouldn’t be any ‘snowboarding’. They’d all (still) be ‘snurfing’ today.”
In 1982 the first National Snow Surfing Championship kicked off at Suicide Six Resort near Woodstock, Vermont, staged by Paul Graves, a rider in the 1979 championships in Muskegon. The event embraced riders and boards of all types. By 1983, JEM Corporation had dissolved due to the then-owner suffering a messy divorce from his wife. The final Snurfing Championship was hosted in 1984 and the epicenter of the sport started by Poppen’s creation quickly relocated.
Today, of course, the sport is worldwide, but it received its start along the shore of the sugar-sand beaches of Muskegon.
Snurfing Turns Fifty (2015)
A celebration of the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of Sherm Poppen’s creation, and the sport that evolved into snowboarding, is on exhibit at Muskegon Community College. The display runs through March 2015. Click Snurfer Exhibit at MCC Library for details.
The annual Snurfing competition was resurrected a few years ago as part of the Muskegon Winter Sports Complex’s “Party in your Parka” event. This year’s event is scheduled for January 24, 2015.
Additional events, tied to the anniversary, are planned. Watch for details.
Our Guest Blogger
Ron Pesch, has written for Michigan History Magazine, MLive and other publications. He is an historian for the Michigan High School Athletic Association, a board member of the International Buster Keaton Society and a die-hard high school sports fan. He graduated from Muskegon High School and Western Michigan University.