How Snowboarding First Found its Footing in Southern Vermont
By Benjamin Lerner
When Jake Burton Carpenter first received a “Snurfer” as a Christmas gift in 1968 during a family visit to Southern Vermont, his first ride down the snowy hills of the Green Mountain State started a series of events that would come to shape the winter sports culture of an entire region – and eventually, the entire world.
Long before snowboarding became the universally-recognized winter sports phenomenon that it is today, “snow surfing” was once a controversial niche sport that was forbidden at nearly all mainstream ski resorts. One of the earliest watershed moments in the history of snowboarding occurred when Michigan-based entrepreneur Sherman Poppen first created the Snurfer in 1965. After binding two short skis together to create a single rideable platform, Poppen was able to create an entertaining wintertime diversion that delighted his children. Through a combination of pure circumstantial luck and improvised engineering, Poppen stumbled upon a brilliantly simple idea that quickly captured the imaginations of winter sports enthusiasts all across the country.
After realizing the market potential for his accidental invention, Poppen tinkered with various prototypes until he developed a streamlined and enjoyable product. Although the exact origins of snowboarding remain a matter of relative historical contention, Poppen’s invention had an undeniable impact on the sport’s early trajectory. As the Snurfer continued to proliferate through American society, a significant number of enterprising alpine daredevils customized and modified Poppen’s product to improve its performance. Their makeshift enhancements paved the way for the development of the earliest iterations of the foot-bound snowboards that dominate the industry today.
Jake Burton Carpenter was arguably the most important and influential of those early Snurfer-inspired snowboard innovators. Born in Cedarhurst, New York, Carpenter was an avid skier who attended the University of Colorado. Carpenter’s dreams of professional ski racing were cut tragically short when a series of unfortunate accidents caused him to abandon his aspirations.
Carpenter came back home to the East Coast to finish his collegiate years at NYU, where he majored in finance. After graduating in 1977, he worked for an investment banking company, where he interviewed independent entrepreneurs and conducted in-person research at their manufacturing facilities. Carpenter would then assess the earning potential of the businesses, and help them broker deals with various investment firms and buyers. During this time, he became acutely attuned to the subtleties of independent manufacturing.
When Carpenter grew tired of his hectic and stressful New York City job, he decided to take a different path. Utilizing his extensive knowledge of winter sports and independent manufacturing processes, he crafted a daring business model. By opening and operating his own shop, he aimed to design, produce, and market the finest snow surfing apparatus that the world had ever seen. Rather than simply modify an existing product – such as the Snurfer – Carpenter intended to create a line of custom-made boards that would elevate snow surfing and redefine the limits of the sport.
Carpenter left the hustle and bustle of New York City behind, and relocated to the town of Londonderry in Southern Vermont. After refining his woodworking skills, he opened a small-scale shop and hired three local workers – including his relatives, Mark Wright, and Mimi Wright, who designed the iconic original Burton logo. When Carpenter initially began production, he made hundreds of prototypes before he created a product that he felt comfortable selling to the public.
According to Mimi Wright, Carpenter “didn’t really have a lot of support, but he had an incredible amount of drive. He was determined like no one I had ever seen before.”
Carpenter introduced the first official Burton production model in 1979. Known as the “BBI,” the board was available in both “regular” and “goofy” stance settings to accommodate left-footed and right-footed riders. It was made of strong and light material, and featured a beautifully silkscreened graphic design on the front side. After the initial product run sold only 300 boards, Carpenter became disillusioned and disappointed with his lack of immediate success. He left Vermont and returned home to Long Island, where he attempted to come to terms with the emotional burden of his entrepreneurial letdown. At the lowest point of his crisis of confidence, he decided that the project meant more to him than just money. He wanted to dedicate his life to the advancement of snowboarding.
After coming back to the Green Mountain State with a renewed sense of vigor and purpose, Carpenter worked tirelessly to perfect his snowboard building operation. In a time when snowboarding was still a fledgling sport, Carpenter went above and beyond to create a magnificent product. His meticulous attention to detail and commitment to quality was manifested in the perfectly-balanced rudder fins on the early models, as well as their durable and lightweight construction. He recruited a crew of inspired and dedicated workers to assist him in the manufacturing process, including Londonderry local Ian Martin, and skilled Dorset-born snowboarder Doug Bouton. Together, they began to build a reputation through hard work and community outreach.
One pivotal moment for Vermont Snowboarding was the inaugural National Snow Surfing Championships in 1982. Held at Suicide Six in Woodstock, Vermont, the event consisted of slalom, giant slalom, and freestyle contests. The championships drew the attention of both local and national news outlets and publications, such as Newswire and Vermont Life. Bryant Gumbel and Willard Scott were noticeably amused when they discussed the championship during an episode of The Today Show. During the course of the nationwide broadcast, they could barely control their giggling. Though Gumbel and Scott’s lighthearted jokes somewhat undermined the serious nature of the competition, the publicity helped to introduce the sport to a wider audience.
Over the next few years, Carpenter was able to work closely with local ski resorts to advance the cause of snowboarding on a local level in Southern Vermont. The 1983 and 1984 National Snow Surfing Championships held at the Winhall-based Snow Valley resort helped to develop a tight-knit community of riders in the sport’s early years. Due to the fact that the resort was open to allowing snowboarders on their lifts, it became a natural gathering spot for Vermont’s riders in the early 80s.
As Southern Vermont’s preeminent snowboarders continued to push the craft forward, they became captivated by the continual pursuit of longer and more advanced trails and terrain beyond the low-lying hills of Snow Valley. Before large-scale ski resorts such as Stratton and Bromley permitted snowboarders to ride on their slopes, Southern Vermont-based snowboarders would often try their skills on steeply-inclined hills that ran off the edge of Route 100 in Londonderry.
Carpenter’s team would also embark on stealthy-late night missions at Bromley and Stratton, hiking up under cover of darkness and testing new board models while evading the watch of diligent nighttime patrolmen. After spending long periods of time cultivating relationships with local ski patrol officers and ski-lift operators, they were occasionally granted use of the lifts at closing time at Bromley. Through these covert riding sessions, they were able to further develop and perfect their board models through a process of active research and development based on real-time feedback from riders in the field. They would then use the feedback of the riders to create better boards in their manufacturing center, which was located in a barn behind Carpenter’s residence in Manchester.
The early manufacturing process for Burton’s snowboards was both complex and somewhat perilous. After the boards were cut, shaped, and sanded, they were dipped in a vat of urethane. The “dippers” working at the Burton manufacturing facility were outfitted with air compressors, which limited their respiratory exposure. Sometimes the boards would get caught and jammed in the wood routing machine on the main production floor. Pressure would build up and shoot the boards through the walls of the workshop. Over time, the process was improved, and Carpenter and his team developed fruitful relationships with both domestic and international distributors.
At the same time that they were growing the reach of their business, the Burton allow snowboarders to ride their lifts. In 1983, Carpenter was given the opportunity to showcase the potential of snowboarding to the ski patrol staff at Stratton. During the demonstration, Stratton’s Director of Operations, Paul “P.J.” Johnston, came along to indulge his curiosity. After Johnston came face-to-face with Carpenter and his crew, he became a staunch advocate and ally for their snowboarding campaign. Johnston recruited his fellow Stratton employees to try the snowboards for themselves. Following a successful testing period, Johnston met with Stratton’s Board of Directors. Despite their initial skepticism, Johnston unilaterally pressed forward with his advocacy efforts, and in 1983, he awarded Carpenter and his team a probationary trial period at Stratton.
After the approval, Carpenter and his team wasted no time in developing a rigorous certification process for aspiring snowboarders. The multi-tiered certification system at Stratton served two important functions: it both minimized potential liability by training visiting snowboarders in safety and etiquette, and it also incentivized snowboarders to develop their skills to attain the highest levels of certification.
In the initial years following the Board’s decision to allow snowboarding at Stratton, a noticeable cultural divide began to emerge between the skiers and the snowboarders. Skiers complained that the snowboarders were ruining the surface texture of the snow by carving it up, and attempted to curb the influx of snowboarders by designating certain tracks and wooded areas as “off-limits” to them.
Throughout this time of cultural clash, Carpenter went above and beyond to preserve the sanctity and professionalism of his sport through both his personal interactions with students and boarders and the development of the snowboard instruction program. When the dynamic self-taught duo of Mike and Steve Hayes bucked the certification system and started riding the Stratton lifts without the approval of Carpenter’s team, Carpenter confronted them head on and made sure that they passed their tests. Carpenter was known for giving spirited pep talks to his students and instructors, which were said to be peppered with a potent mixture of scolding admonitions and rallying encouragements. Although the Hayes brothers were not the only talented snowboarders who were reluctant to conform to the structural normalcy of the testing procedure, the unified cohesion of the Stratton snowboarding movement helped to solidify snowboarding’s reputation during a crucial period of growth and expansion.
In 1985, the National Snow Surfing Championships were moved to Stratton Mountain, and were renamed the U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships. In the years that followed, the U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships continued to flourish, drawing hordes of spectators to Stratton mountain. As the championships began to gain international traction in the snowboarding community, the slalom racing events that had dominated the early years were gradually overshadowed by the surging popularity of the half-pipe events. Throughout the 1990s, the championships became increasingly packed and rowdy, and were subsequently moved to the “Sun Bowl” section of the mountain to prevent tension between the rambunctious crowds of spectators and the families who were coming to ski at Stratton.
Ultimately, Burton Snowboards moved its main base of operations to Burlington in 1992. This relocation coincided with the rapid ascent of snowboarding to the pinnacle of cultural relevancy, and also the beginning of Vermont’s snowboarding renaissance. In the 1990s, Stratton Mountain became a legendary training ground for world-renowned snowboarders such as Tricia Byrnes and Ross Powers, who went on to win world championships and compete in the Olympics after snowboarding was made an official Olympic sport at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. In 2012, the U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships were moved to Vail, which signified the end of a storied chapter of Vermont winter sports history.
Though the influence and reach of Burton Snowboards and the sport of snowboarding had grown far beyond the borders of the Green Mountain State, the local community has continued to come together for the Vermont Open snowboarding competition series in the years following the move of the U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships, and the local snowboarding scene continues to thrive.
In a beautifully serendipitous turn of events, one of Burton’s founding employees, Mimi Wright, has teamed with renowned sculptor and bronze artist Jason Dreweck to develop the Snowboard National Monument in Londonderry, Vermont. Once completed, the Snowboard National Monument will stand as a gorgeous and dynamic sculptural embodiment of Southern Vermont’s contributions to local and global snowboarding culture.
The fearless twists and turns of the corkscrewing snowboarders featured in the sculpture serve as a perfect metaphor for how a scrappy group of Southern Vermont-based visionaries beat the odds to build the sport of snowboarding from the ground up with confidence, drive, momentum, and vision.