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Great thoughts: Jake Burton and the snowboard

01/27/03 12:00AM By Mary McKhann
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(Host) As VPR continues to explore Great Thoughts of Vermont, commentator Mary McKhann tells about a great idea that quite literally "took off" in the Green Mountains.

(McKhann) The roots of snowboarding, strictly speaking, are not exclusively in Vermont. But much of the coming-of-age of the sport happened here, thanks to the efforts of Jake Burton Carpenter.

Growing up on Long Island, Carpenter - who now goes by his better known middle name - was given a snow toy called a Snurfer when he was 14. He became enamored with the device, which had been invented by a man named Sherman Poppens. It had no bindings and was ridden standing up holding a rope attached to the nose.

In 1977, not long after college where he got a degree in economics, Burton moved to South Londonderry where he tinkered with the Snurfer design until it finally morphed into the early version of the Burton Snowboard.

He sold only 300 boards in the first year and was going through money at an alarming rate. The biggest challenge was not only selling a product, but selling a brand new sport -- even a lifestyle. Ski resorts had to be convinced to allow these strange snow sliding devices on their hills. Burton worked with Stratton's then-mountain manager Paul Johnston, and the southern Vermont area become one of the earliest to embrace snowboarding.

If you look around the slopes at almost any resort these days, it's hard to remember that a relatively short time ago, snowboarding was non-existent. With anywhere between 20-50% of snow sliders riding one board instead of two, snowboarding, over the past few years, has been one of the fast growing sports in the world, a sport that combines the thrill of downhill skiing, the grace of surfing, and the athleticism of skateboarding.

Burton initially thought snowboarding was made for the backcountry and wasn't very interested in the growing freestyle movement, nor was he interested in having teams and pro riders. But he was flexible enough to quickly see which way the wind was blowing and adapt.

Part of his change in attitude came about when Burton hired a hot young rider away from his biggest rival, Sims snowboards. Craig Kelly was the reigning king of freestyle and halfpipe riding, and his arrival at Burton gave the company a huge amount of credibility in that core sector. Tragically, Kelly was among those who died in last week's avalanche in British Columbia.

Over the years, Burton has sponsored a "who's who" of snowboarder champions. More recently, Burton sponsored Vermonters Ross Powers and Kelly Clark, who took home the men's and women's halfpipe gold medals from last year's Olympics.

Burton avoided many of the pitfalls of other companies, choosing to remain private in a time where many companies were touting their IPOs. Burton put out good product and stood behind it. In the mid-90s, when every kid and his uncle were opening a "garage" shop that built snowboards, Burton was delivering what others were only promising. Growth was slow, incremental, steady - and ultimately, phenomenal.

Would there be snowboarding today if it weren't for Jake Burton? Probably. Would it be what it is today? Not likely.

This is Mary McKhann from the Mad River Valley.
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