Godfather of snowboarding

Passing Date: 
Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Sherman Poppen, the Muskegon, Michigan businessman who invented the Snurfer, died July 31 at age 89.

On Christmas Day of 1965, Poppen needed to get his daughters out of the house so that his pregnant wife, Nancy, could rest. He bolted together a pair of kids’ skis and encouraged them to ride the board down the snow-covered Lake Michigan sand dunes behind their home.

The girls loved it, Poppen made an improved version, and his Nancy dubbed it Snurfer, for snow-surfer. Poppen applied for a patent in March, 1966 and licensed the toy to Brunswick Corp., which had been manufacturing bowling equipment in Muskegon since 1905. Poppen worked with the factory to develop a mass-produced product of molded plywood. A local toy distributor took sales national, and over the next two decades some 750,000 Snurfers were sold by Brunswick and Jem Corp. Beginning in 1968, Brunswick sponsored an annual Snurfer-racing championship in Muskegon. When Jem Corp. folded in  the early ‘80s, Poppen launched his own company, Snurfer USA Corporation, but found liability insurance too expensive.

By that time Jake Burton Carpenter had already made a success of Burton Snowboards Inc., founded in 1977. Carpenter began Snurfing as a kid and competed in Brunswick-sponsored races. In 2002 he told a reporter, “The Snurfer definitely inspired me. It was sort of a cult type thing at the time. It was something I embraced right away.”

Poppen himself was a lifelong skier, and didn’t begin snowboarding until after being inducted into the Snowboarding Hall of Fame in 1995. A Muskegon native, he grew up racing sailboats on Lake Michigan and studied business at Northwestern University on a Naval ROTC scholarship. After Navy service he returned to Muskegon and joined a welding-supply business, eventually coming to own it. He sold the business to his employees and retired in 1990, moving with Nancy to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to ski and later, occasionally, to snowboard. Nancy died in 1993.

With his second wife, Louise, Poppen moved in 2008 to Griffin, Georgia, where he spent the remainder of his life.

Click here for the Skiing Heritage interview with Sherman Poppen.

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