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Skateboarding History by Chris Ahrens

Posted on October 14, 2014

A Short History of Skateboarding

For years there had been “flexi flyers,” which were basically sleds mounted on four wheels. There were also four-wheeled boards with wooden handles attached to them. But there is no record of anyone riding an actual skateboard prior to 1950.

The first recollection I can find of anyone seeing a skateboard comes from La Jolla surf legends John Dahl and Carl Ekstrom in around 1950. The boards consisted of steel wheels on a wooden plank, made by then popular La Jolla surfboard builder Peter Parkin. As a kid Ekstrom recalls making his own version of Parkin’s board, and bombing hills throughout the city with his friends, before helping introduce the latest diversion from boredom to young surfers in Los Angeles. Dahl, meanwhile, formed a gang of skaters, whose symbol was a gold-capped seal tooth worn around the neck, striking four-wheeled fear into the local citizenry by risking their necks on the city streets.
Once the device hit the nation’s media center, Los Angeles, it didn’t take long for kids across the country to follow the leaders, rip apart their metal-wheeled roller skates and hammer them onto two by fours.

Skateboarding remained primarily an underground activity from then until 1962 when LA lifeguard Larry Stevenson introduced Makaha Skateboards to the general public. As often as not skateboarding was then called “sidewalk surfin’ ”. The new sport imitated surfing right down to its new anthem, from a melody lifted from the Beach Boy’s hit “Catch a Wave” and repackaged as “Sidewalk Surfin’ by surf music duet, Jan & Dean who in 1964 sang Grab your board and go sidewalk surfin’ with me…
Skateboarders soon ditched metal wheels, adapted clay roller skate wheels and began venturing into better tricks and steeper terrain. Leaders of the Makaha pack Bruce Logan, Woody Woodward, Danny Bearer, Torger Johnson and Greg Carroll quickly rolled to national fame.

While clay was fine for smoothly groomed roller rinks, it was too hard for the coming thrill of vertical riding, or rough streets, where a single pebble could mean a broken arm. As it would several times in subsequent decades, skateboarding went out of favor for a time, and died. Makaha folded, only to return when the sport did again, in 1969. That’s when Stevenson upped the game through the invention of the first kicktail on a skateboard.
Bruce Logan, who had yet to experience a growth spurt, had graduated high school at a height of 4’11” and was training to be a jockey. Stevenson easily lured Bruce away from horses and back to his first love, and hired him as his number-one test pilot. It was then Bruce put together the world’s top skate team for the time, which included younger brother, Brad, Ty “Mister Incredible” Page and Rusty Henderson. The team did various department store demonstrations around the country to stunned audiences who had never before seen tricks like Bruce’s “space walk,” or “headstand spinner,” and skateboarding made its biggest wave yet when the Makaha Team appeared on Johnny Carson.

Skateboarding again fell out of popularity, but came rocketing back in the early ‘70s, in part because of the addition of urethane wheels and press-in precision bearings. By 1973 the Logan family, then called “The First Family of Skateboarding” and including mother, Barbara (who ran the show with her eldest son, Brian), World Champions, Bruce and sister Robin, world-class skateboarders Brad and Brian founded the world’s most popular skateboarding company, Logan Earth Ski. Aside from the Logan family, Earth Ski riders would eventually include Hall of Famers Dogtowners Jay Adams, Tony Alva.  While there were far fewer girls skating in the ‘70s, they were well represented with Laura Thornhill, Ellen Berryman, Kim Cepedes, Ellen O’Neil and a smattering of others.

Logan and Page ruled the freestyle world, vertical skating, but that style of skating was about to be eclipsed by a more vertical style made possible by urethane wheels. It was then, in the mid to late ‘70s that skateboarders first began launching beyond empty swimming pools, into the air. The aerial proved significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it was eventually borrowed by surfing. This allowed skateboarding to repay its debt to its big brother and, for the first time, assume its own identity.
Aside from Logan other skate teams like Bain were quick off the line and ripped into the act with stellar teams. But when times got hard and Bain and the Z-boyz found themselves looking for a home, Logan took up much of the slack, leaving Stacy Peralta to Gordon & Smith, to join a powerful team that included the original surf/skaters, Skip Frye, Mike Hynson. A few years later Joe Roper joined the crew, along with Doug “Pineapple” Saladino, Steve Cathy, Chris Miller, Neil Blender, Dennis Martinez, Henry Hester and Laura Thornhill, among others. Like Bain before them, G&S employed fiberglass in their boards, but when they introduced Fiberflex to the street, downhill skating began to resemble skiing with a liveliness never before achieved.

Another major shift for skating occurred in 1978 when Florida’s Alan Gefland introduced the Ollie, a move that opened up the skate world to endless performance possibilities. Around that time one of the skate stars from the early ‘70s, Stacy Peralta joined forces with George Powell to form Powell/Peralta, which gave birth the Bones Brigade. Gelfand was Peralta’s first recruit, followed by Mike McGill, who would go on to invent the 540 aerial or "McTwist" in 1984. Other members of the team included future skate legends Lance Mountain, Tony Hawk, Steve Caballerro and freestyle genius, Rodney Mullen. While the number of great skaters during the 1980s is too numerous to mention here, it was Tony Hawk and Christian Hosoi who basically dominated the era. Where the relatively clean-cut Hawk could be compared to an Olympic athlete, Hosoi had all the swagger and vices of a major rock star. During their peak years, most fans were either for Hawk or Hosoi. The division could be seen right down to the trucks you use: Independent for Hosoi and his followers, and Tracker for Hawk and his crew. The differences also reflected in the skate mags, with TransWorld Skateboarding pouring more ink into Hawk, while Thrasher tended to side more with Hosoi. 

For years the battles raged as Hawk reaching deep to invent new tricks nearly weekly, while Hosoi continued to hammer out the soulful basics, flying higher and with more power and style than any skater previously had. The rift became complete when Hosoi missed the first X Games 1995, and Hawk went on to win the comp. Turns out Hosoi was hiding from the law in Japan at the time, after a decade’s long addiction to drugs finally got the better of him. It would be years on the run before Hosoi was finally arrested in 2000 for transporting crystal methamphetamine across state lines, and serving five years, during which time he did the most radical turn of his life, surprising the world by turning to faith in God, a change that would eventually lead to his becoming an associate pastor with another radical skater turned pastor, “Alabami” Jay Haizlip. 

Skateboarding is now a legitimate sport with some top pros making far more than the average bank president. Skateboards are used around the world by young and old, as many of the greats from the past forgot to quit riding and skaters like David Hackett, Rodney Mullen, Tony Magnusson, Eddie Elguera, Jay Adams (RIP), Steve Olson, Steve Caballero ,Tony Hawk, Christian Hosoi and Tony Alva continue to rip well into middle age. 

The styles they invented are still relevant, but new-school skaters are doing things they never dreamed of, like Danny Way with his super ramp that offers heights dwarfing even Hosoi’s greatest achievements. In 2005, Way’s comfort at great heights led to the most radical leap forward ever when he vaulted the Great Wall of China. Another red-letter day for skateboarding occurred when Tony Hawk landed the first 900-degree turn, after 10 attempts at the 1999 X-Games. Making the feat more impressive was his being over 30-years-old at the time. While 30 is no longer the outer limits of performance skating, back then most skaters had put their boards aside to pursue their fortunes, something that has proven ironic since Hawk’s fortune has been make through skateboarding and his net worth exceeds 100 million dollars. Other skateboarders to make the millionaire’s club include Tony Alva, Ryan Scheckler, Rob Dydrek, Rodney Mullen and Lance Mountain.

Even a short history of skateboarding would be incomplete without including the on-edge, gut wrenching subspecies called downhill. This blood sport first peaked in the mid ‘70s on the hills of La Costa and Long Beach’s Signal Hill where skaters like Henry Hester, Dennis Schufeldt, Chris Yandell, Bobby Piercy and John Hutson ranked high among those willing to trade skin for pavement. Taking things to the streets in the new millennium are G&S (again), Sector9, Gravity, Bamboo, Land Yachtz and Penny, among others. Look a more extensive story on downhill and longboard skateboarding in a future issue of Groundswell.

Skaters would eventually be ticketed for breaking speed limits on city streets. When that, the first Ollie, and the first 540 occurred…when Christian Hosoi boosted over ten feet, then skateboarders thought there was nothing more to be done. But, not everyone thinks that way, and then as now as some kid is quietly practicing to shatter all records against the Great Wall. When that happens a new world of possibilities will again open up.

Eventually all the records will fall, and the great rides will fade like a footnote in an old history book. The new kings will be heralded by their followers while most of them will never know what it’s like to have their own model or make a fortune from something so seemingly elementary as a skateboard. For each one that makes it big, there will be a million more satisfied to skate to school, do a kick flip, or carve a swimming pool. Most of them will never go beyond that point. But when they’re at the apex of their own peak they won’t care. They won’t be thinking the names Peter Parkins, Bruce Logan, or Tony Hawk when they’re up there, either. When space is before you and gravity begins to pull you back to earth, there’s no time for reflection on the past. This is a moment when all senses are on go, and everything is burned into the memory of a kid who will feel the wind in their face and the rush of landing four wheels on pavement. 

This article is dedicated to the memory of Jay Adams, 100 per cent skateboarder, Original Seed, and a skate pioneer who recently died in his sleep, just hours after surfing deep barrels in Mexico. The entire skateboard world wept at the news of his passing.

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