Is it possible that a small group of friends from Illinois were actively snowboarding in 1939? And if so, why has no one known about if until 2000?
If the video footage being played in the Burton booth at the 2000 Snow Industries of America show in Las Vegas yesterday is to be believed, it could rearrange everything we’ve thought about the birth of snowboarding. Or, on the other hand, it could be Burton’s best conceived hoax since announcing that they would begin making snow skis.
The glitchy black and white footage, which Burton claims to have acquired through the friend-of-a-friend route popularized by urban myth, shows Vern Wicklund of Oak Park, Illinois and two of his friends riding standup sleds down a lightly wooded hillside. If you didn’t know better you’d think it was filmed in the same woods that are home to the Blair Witch. The men are dressed in their Sunday best and are carving down the slope riding boards that feature nose cords, foot straps, and turned up noses.
How Burton got the tape is almost more interesting than what the tape shows. “A guy in our credit department was on vacation and flying home he was sitting next to a woman and telling her about where he’d been and she said, ‘Well, my grandfather invented snowboarding.'” says Dave Schriber, Burton’s director of marketing. “And he said, is your grandfather Sherman Poppen, and she said, ‘Who, I don’t understand.’ So after a very long discussion he realized that she was talking about something that had no connection to anything that we know about. Then she sent us a video tape that was a transfer of the film she was talking about.”
When Schriber and the Burton crew saw the tape they were pretty surprised. “We were shocked,” Schriber said. “We wanted to see more credible evidence,” he said. “First they told us that they had nothing to substantiate it, but then they went back to talk to the family members (there are dozens of them now) and discovered that they had one board in this guy’s barn, and another in somebody else’s garage and then the patent paperwork showed up.”
The patent paperwork (US Patent #2181391) is the most intriguing to snowboard historian Kevin Kinnear. “This appears to be an authentic patent from 1939,” he said. “If this is real then the sport is much older than we thought.”
Snowboard innovator Tom Sims was blown away by the footage but he was surprised that he hadn’t seen the patent. Few have done more research on the origins of snowboarding than he has and he’s never seen this patent before. “I’m just wondering why this never came up in any of the patent searches we’ve done over the years,” he asked.
Burton’s Dennis Jenson claimed it’s because the patent was expired, but Tom was quick to point out that most of the patents found in searches and used in patent applications are in fact expired.
Chris Sanders, founder of Avalanche Snowboards suggest a search of the US Patent and Trademark Office website (www.uspto.gov), however, that database only goes back to 1976.
There is reason to believe that the tape is a hoax. Rarely could a Burton employee talk about the tape without smirking uncontrollably. And on top of that Burton’s Dana Clark the guy who discovered the tape tells a somewhat different story of exactly how the tape got into his hands. “I met this girl on a flight who knew some people back in Burlington and I planned to meet up with her a month after the trip we were on,” he said. “She brought some folks by the factory showroom and a guy with her said he knew an elderly lady who claimed that her father had invented the sport and they actually had some stuff on home video and I asked to see it. It was quite a find and I actually ended up giving it to Jake for Christmas.”
Aside from the obvious discrepancies in the story, the biggest question most views had was why the family waited so long to go public with their footage. “I think it’s weird that the family didn’t feel compelled to make some sort of statement earrlier with the rise in snowboarding’s popularity,” Schriber said. “When you think about where these guys were coming from it makes sense. They weren’t trying to be radical or trying to be surfers. They were just trying to stand up on their sleds. So there is something of a disconnect culturally between what they are doing and what we’re all doing.”
And what about those who don’t believe the footage is real? Well, Schriber has a perfect answer for that as well. “I think the people who disbelieve it most are people who think they may be losing something rather than gaining something by having something this historical come to light.”
So what does the Wicklund tape mean to the snowboarding industry? “I think what it does for us is that it shows that nobody really invented snowboarding and standing on sleds is as old as sleds themselves,” Schriber says.
Well, that, or that Burton is still one step ahead on the media prankster list. I guess we’ll all just have to wait and see.