Proud to be a Poppen

A snowboarding history lesson from the West Michigander whose father started it all.
“Made in the Mitten” follows the evolution of snowboarding from its original days of “snurfing,” a term popularized by inventor Sherman Poppen in 1965 in Muskegon. Courtesy Zeppelin Zeerip

Christmas Day, 1965. Nancy K. Poppen of Muskegon, Michigan is nine months pregnant. In fact, she’s about to burst. Her children, Wendy, 10 and Laurie, 5, are driving her absolutely crazy.

“Sherm, take the girls outside and keep ‘em busy,” she yells to her husband.

“I was five and my older sister, Wendy, was 10, and my younger sister, Julie, was due in three days,” recalls Laurie Poppen, who now resides on Stony Lake in Oceana County.

Sherman Poppen dutifully obeyed and took the bundled up girls out to the garage where he decided to embark on an experiment. He affixed Wendy’s two skis together with some plywood so it could be ridden like a surfboard down the snow covered dune in the backyard. A surfboard for the snow: The Snurfer.

“Wendy’s still mad about it, that he did that to her skis,” Laurie said. Poppen later affixed a rope to the front to make it easier to tow the snurfer back up the hill.

“He really invented it as a toy for us and didn’t think much else of it,” Laurie said.

Poppen had some engineer friends at Brunswick, a large bowling products company with a facility in Muskegon. Laurie said her dad flew the idea by them and they sent some suits out to watch Wendy go down the hill on it.

“I was too young. I could barely stand up on that thing,” said Laurie.

Sherman Poppen ended up getting a U.S. patent for the Snufer and the first one came off the Brunswick production line the following year.

At some point thereafter, a person whose name would become synonymous with the sport of snowboarding, Jake Burton Carpenter, took up Snurfing and was modifying the boards in his backyard in Vermont.

“He wanted to figure out how to keep your feet on the board, like a water ski,” said Laurie.

In 1977 he founded Burton Snowboards, while Laurie and her family stuck to skiing, with season passes to Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville.

“At Crystal, they would make the snowboarders hike up and not let them ride the lifts,” she said. “It was a long, slow, steady growth of the popularity of snowboarding before it got accepted in the mainstream and the funny thing is that none of the three of us ever took it up as our own sport.”

But Sherman Poppen did. He learned to snowboard at the age of 67 in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

“He loved to have a good time. He worked hard and he played hard,” said Laurie.

In 1994, snowboarding became an Olympic sport.

“That was a big deal for my dad. He was just so happy that it took off and people were enjoying the outdoors with a thing he started.”

Another highlight was when he and Jake Burton Carpenter were pictured together in Vanity Fair in 2001.

“Besides being an inventor, super smart and a good investor, my dad was a huge philanthropist,” said Laurie. “My mom told him she wanted to be able to help underprivileged kids with artistic talent, to support them to continue their artistic endeavors.”

To that end, the Poppens set up the Nancy K. Poppen Arts Program in Muskegon Public Schools. The Sherman R. Poppen College Fund followed and then Sherman Poppen and his sister donated money to start The Leila and Cyrus Poppen House, a Fruitport hospice home named for Laurie’s grandparents.

“He was more proud of his charitable giving than the Snurfer,” Laurie said. “I’m proud to be Poppen because of that.”

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