When I Invented The Snowboard

In 1966 when I was ten years old I really loved snow, because A) sledding; and B) snow days.  Just like everybody else.  And, that Christmas, I really wanted a Snurfer.

Snurfer

The Snurfer was advertised heavily that Christmas season, and I asked Santa for one, but I didn’t get it. I don’t think Santa could afford it that year, we were a big family and that’s the way it goes sometimes.

So, sometimes I would stand on my sled going down the local hills. Back then just about all the sleds were Flexible Flyers, with  steel runners, birch-slat platforms, and a very clever steering system that flexed the runners. Standing on the sled holding the rope, you could steer a little, but it wasn’t snurfing.

Rider standing on sled, from 1954 Wheaties Commercial, Winter Edition
Snurfer Girl

The Snurfer was a single ski, with a slightly convex bottom surface, and a looped nose rope to hold onto, and it was the first commercialized prototype of what has become the snowboard. To ride it, you stood on it sideways, without bindings, and held on to the nose rope. After a balanced slide between about 5 feet, at 4mph, and 25 feet, at about 15mph, you fell down. These boards were very difficult to ride. Snurfers were red or yellow. I wanted a red one. That winter, when it snowed, my sisters and neighbors and I went to sled with the crowds on the big hill in Valley Forge State Park. It was a great, popular sled hill, broad and long and just the right steepness, bald and grassy and bare of trees and bushes. At any given time there could be over a hundred sledders there, and Snurfers were rare.  Maybe one Snurfer among the hundred, and owned by a big kid who wouldn’t let a little kid try it.

But the Snurfer was in my craw.  And on my mind.

I had pretty much figured out, when spring and summer rolled around, that I wasn’t getting a Snurfer.  Nope, not nohow. I didn’t have enough saved allowance, and a Snurfer cost $40 or so, and it was just too much. That was during the year or two when our family ate a lot of broiled kidneys, chicken hips, and lentils and bacon once a week. Finances were tight.

But ideas were forming in my little 11-year-old brain.

While visiting family friends for two weeks on a lake in the Poconos that following summer, in their boat barn I spotted, up in the rafters, something that caught my eye. It was the leftover single of a pair of waterskis, its partner having been busted and tossed years before.

It was not sleek like the skis Johnny and Bobby and Heather were riding on, and that they taught me to get up on behind Uncle Bob’s Mercury outboard. It was thick plywood, painted red, and nearly 10″ wide, and blunt nosed and very flat and clunky.  When I asked for it, for keeps, they said sure, we should have thrown that away years ago.

So I took that old waterski, probably manufactured back in the 40’s, or maybe early 50s, and I strapped it to the roof-rack and hauled it home.

My dad asked me what I was going to do with it.

“I’m going to make a Snurfer.”

And I did.

Now, I’m going to back up about two years, to the year 1964 or 65, when I was 8 or 9, and another big family, originally from Mexico, moved into the area, taking up residence in a big old stone farmhouse not far from ours. The father was a renowned and innovative heart surgeon pursuing the next phase in his great career in one of Philadelphia’s teaching hospitals, having come from some great coronary program in Southern California. The boys, my friend Jimbo and his brother Robby, brought skateboards with them from California.

At the time, there were no skateboards in Pennsylvania.  They had to be brought in–like these–from the west coast.  And these were nice little quality skateboards, great maneuvering, and we rode them around and around their big cement-floored garage.

Yeah, I wanted a skateboard, but we couldn’t find them anywhere, not at the Paoli Hardware store that had a super toy department upstairs, not in Wayne, not in Bryn Mawr.  This awesome toy hadn’t yet arrived for sale in the east USA in 1964.

I wanted one terribly, so since we couldn’t find any locally available, my Dad and I made one.

Terribly.  We used a street skate.  I’m not sure they’re even made anymore, but back in the ’60s there were these cheapo roller skates, with metal wheels, on a steel frame with a skate key that was used to screw-clamp the carriage to your shoes. This version of the roller skate was bolt-on, it didn’t have its own boot.  So we used the key to separate the front wheels from the back wheels of the skate, and we found an old hunk of laminated paneling, about a foot and a half long and 8 inches wide, and we screwed a pair of wheels on the front, and the rear wheels on the back, and we painted the whole thing silver.  Unlike real skateboard carriages, which back then used professional roller-skate trucks and wheels, the steel-wheel pairs of these street skates were about 2″ apart.

We didn’t even shape the board, it was just an oblong rectangle of wood with some metal wheels bolted under it. It had a tongue on one flank, and a groove on the other.  If poised it at the top of a paved hill, and you stood on it, and pointed it down hill, and tried not to shift your weight much at all, your eyeballs shook and your teeth rattled and if the surface was at all rough, your joints and bones shook so much you thought they were going to disconnect, and you got to skate a few feet and then you weren’t on the ‘skate-board’ anymore.  Probably not even on the driveway anymore.  If you were, you were sliding on your ass, or your elbows and knees.  This was before they thought of those knee pads and elbow pads.

Back to 1967.

Having helped improvise a skateboard when they weren’t available, I was now, a couple years later, ready to improvise a Snurfer when they weren’t affordable.

I regarded my raw material. The decades-old waterski. A red-painted slab of plywood, basically a big thunk of lumber, untapered, unbeveled, with a rotted rubber footcuff planted around it’s midpoint. It had one great thing going for it, a single advantage over a pine plank found washed up along the stream after a flood, or a 1 x 6 hunk of barn siding from a construction site; its big, blunt nose was curved upward, and quite nicely…

So I drilled a hole in the nose, added the 4-foot hold-on rope that Snurfer’s all had back then, and when winter came, and it snowed, I was ready.

And a lot like the improvised skate-board, my home-made snurfer sucked.

It was impossible to control.  I tried tweaking it. I shortened it some, which also removed the two lumpy protrusions at the very stern of the thing (keels?), and that helped a little. But after maybe half a dozen outings, my single-ski, gravity-driven standing snow rider resumed it’s residence in a barn, this time, ours.

But I did have a name for my creation that winter of 1967.  I called it my Snowboard.

Years later, in the early 1980s, I lived and worked in Aspen for about three years.  The closest we ever saw to a Snurfer or a Snowboard, in that era, was a mono-ski.  Are they still around? We used to laugh when we saw them. A local would never have something like that.  Tourists. Trying too hard.  The coolest slope riders back then, and they were just starting to ride the lifts, were the downhill cross-country skiers, who were then perfecting a maneuver that involved single-knee bending and body contortions to navigate the steeps and the moguls and the powder without the parallel bouncing we know as downhill. This radical new technique was called Telemark. That was cool.

I didn’t invent the snowboard, to be clear.  It was invented or at least commercialized, somewhat hastily, by a fellow in Wisconsin named Sherman Poppen.

And the person who appears to have done the most for advancing the the design and engineering, and political legwork to get Snowboarding established and respected and allowed on the commercial slopes, was Jake Burton.

But I have no doubt that there were dozens, maybe even hundreds of lads and lassies who craved a skateboard-like experience on something slippery, and who improvised like I did. Nailed a platform on two snowskis together side by side and took the bindings off; or bent a one-by with some kettle steam; or carved an old door panel–or used a watersport item like I did.

Because good ideas really are commonplace. Ho-hum.

But the guys who stuck with it, who really put their hearts and souls into it, Burton and Poppen and a few others, they’re the guys that really did something.

It’s not enough sometimes to be creative, or innovative.  Poppen had oomph with his inspiration, and sold half a million Snurfers in a year.  Burton had persistence and more, a vision.

And thanks to them and the others who didn’t give up, nobody’s laughing now when Jamie Anderson pulls off a back side double cork 1080 with a melon grab.

Did you try to make yourself a Snurfer?  Or pursue some other improvised innovation to try to join some popular, emerging zeitgeist, on a budget?

If so,  comment below!

 

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