Don Burgeson on the Bunker Sno-Surf, circa 1939, and the world's first snowboard film
The Bunker Company's Sno-Surf, patented in 1939 by Vern Wicklund and brothers Harvey and Gunnar Burgeson, is the "holy grail" of the new Colorado Snowboard Archive at the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum, according to museum board member and Colorado Snowboard Archive co-founder Trent Bush.
While researching this week's cover story about the new museum exhibit, we caught up with Don Burgeson, Gunnar's son, to learn more about the first known snowboard in America -- and the first-ever snowboard film.
What's your earliest memory of these boards?
I wasn't even born yet when they were invented! I was born in 1943, so I was a youngster when they were trying to market the Sno-Surf and get the Bunker Company off the ground, but I remember we always had these boards around the house. I have pictures of us getting pulled around on them like toboggans when we were little, and then when we were older we'd take the boards, hop the fence, and go snowboarding. We called it bunker-boarding at the time, but that's how we used them: Standing up just like my dad showed us. We used them just like the movie shows.
When this footage hit YouTube, the entire snowboard industry and snowboarders everywhere really snapped to attention. News of these boards pushes the history of American snowboarding back almost 30 years farther than anybody had realized before.
We found two 50-foot films spliced together on a reel, and that's what I had made into a DVD so that we could put it on YouTube. From what I gather they were trying to market these boards, and we've now found some documentation of their efforts, including an exchange of letters with the Wilson Sporting Goods company. They did some public demonstrations, and they made these silent 8mm films -- my parents were always making little films when I was growing up -- and were trying to show them to people to help them understand what they'd invented. When we found those old film reels, my daughter Stephanie thought it was so cool that she put it on YouTube and sent it out to some snowboarding magazines. It was really my daughter who realized the importance of their invention and decided we ought to look into it further. She thought her grandfather was pretty cool, inventing the first snowboard! When she first put it on the Internet I was surprised by all the interest in it and all the comments it was getting.
How had people not heard of these boards before, if there was a patent?
Once we found it, I was surprised nobody had seen the patent before, too. But I guess the easily searchable archives from the patent office only go back to the early 70s or so, so nobody really knew about it. Everybody thought Sherman Poppen was the first one to patent anything like a snowboard. But my father, my uncle, and Vern Wicklund really thought this was the start of a new sport. In their letters to Wilson they talked about it being like surfing on snow and being an alternative to skiing.
Do you have any idea how many of the boards were made?
I'm guessing at least 10 or 12, and probably a bunch of prototypes before that. I have three boards, including the one you saw in the museum there in Colorado and two that are in pristine condition that we'll be hanging on to. Some of them are narrower, with two boards instead of three, but the patent was for three boards, 35 inches long, with a total width of 12 inches, like the one there in the museum.
How did the Sno-Surf come to end up in the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum in Vail?
I'm not ready to sell any of the boards, because these are too much of a family thing and it's not about the money, but I would like to see them get some credit for it, which is why we decided to send one of the boards to the museum when Trent Bush reached out to us. Back when they were first making these boards my father would not have believed what snowboarding would become in this day and age, with the halfpipes and the Olympics and everything, but I know they would have loved to see it. I've been coming out to Colorado all my life, to visit Estes Park -- I remember going to Estes Park for the first time in 1951 -- and to go skiing, so it's a fitting place for one of the boards to end up.
Have you ever had a chance to ride a modern snowboard?
I was a skier but I blew my knee out in 1985 and that was the end of my skiing days, so I never did have a chance to try snowboarding in the modern age. At 68 years old I think I'm just too old to try it now, but it would be fun. Snowboarding is my grandson Jake's favorite sport now. I guess it's in his blood.
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