Sokol skateboards

THESE ARE some of the styles of skateboards made at Sokol Manufacturing in Norfolk in the mid- to late 1960s. The skateboards are now a collector's item among skateboard enthusiasts. 

Anthony Thompson remembers the first time he saw someone skateboarding.

A preteen in the early 1980s, the lifelong Norfolkan was sunning himself at Memorial Pool when someone riding a wheeled board rolled by and popped off the curb.

“I thought, ‘What kind of magic is this?’ ” he said.

Soon after, Thompson told his mother he wanted a skateboard of his own, and his love and fascination with the activity grew from there.

It’s a love he has passed onto his children and grandson, as well as channeled into the development of Good Life Action Sports, a nonprofit organization meant to facilitate fundraising for a new skate park in the community.

But Thompson didn’t know until recently that his hometown has a history with the sport and leisure activity that dates almost as far back as the beginning of skateboarding itself.

Sokol Surf Skates — a brand of wooden skateboards featuring burnt-engraved lettering — were made in Norfolk in the mid- to late 1960s by a fledgling company called Sokol Manufacturing.

Thompson stumbled across the obscure bit of trivia after seeing a photo posted by one of his childhood heroes, professional skateboarder Steve Caballero.

“He has an enormous collection of all these different skateboards,” Thompson said of the famous skater. “(One) is stamped with ‘Norfolk, Nebraska,’ so I asked him about it.”

Thompson said Caballero told him that rare brand of board was manufactured in Norfolk, to which Thompson replied, “That’s where I’ve lived my whole life, and I’ve never heard of this.”

Thompson searched eBay to see if he could find other Surf Skates by Sokol for sale and discovered someone in Lincoln had 10 that were left over from a tire sales promotion held several decades earlier.

“They had a promotional deal where if you bought a set of tires, you’d get a Sokol skateboard,” Thompson said before adding that the seller also told him he believed the skateboards had, indeed, originated in Norfolk.

According to the Daily News archives, Sokol Surf Skates were the first products made when Sokol Manufacturing began operation in Norfolk in April 1965. The plant — owned by Leo Sokol — was located south of the Elkhorn River in the area where Guarantee Roofing & Siding now sits.

Leo Sokol was well-known in business as an industrialist and inventor, especially in the Columbus area, where he developed the Sokol Irrigation Pump Co., became involved with Elkhorn Construction Co. and was instrumental in the establishment of the gravel pits that would eventually become Duncan Lakes.

As the Norfolk plant was being built, Leo Sokol had said he expected it would initially employ about 25 people, and he hoped it would eventually employ up to 100.

At the time, city leaders pointed to Sokol Manufacturing in Norfolk and the town’s other new manufacturing plants — Vulcraft and Roehr Products (now Cardinal Health) — as positive indicators of the community’s economic growth.

Leo Sokol’s son, Emil Sokol, was in charge of production at the Norfolk plant. The original boards were made with steel wheels. Later versions of the board utilized hard rubber wheels. In addition to skateboards, a toy called the Satellite Balloon Launcher was manufactured at the Norfolk plant.

But in the fall of 1968, Leo Sokol died suddenly at age 69.

His daughter-in-law, Jo Sokol of Columbus, said in a phone interview with the Daily News that a similar fate befell all but one of Leo’s sons.

“My husband (Henry ‘Jack’ Sokol) died when he was 79,” she said. “He was the only boy to live past 70.”

Jo Sokol produced a DVD set about a decade ago to commemorate her father-in-law’s industrial acumen, as well as to detail the Sokol family history. The skateboards, which are now sought by collectors, are briefly highlighted in the production.

“The skateboards died when the shop in Norfolk died,” Jo Sokol said.

Jo Sokol still has two skateboards; she uses them as wall-hangers. Occasionally, she and her son, Jerry, will hear stories like Thompson’s, where someone will come across one of the skateboards at random.

Thompson recently raffled off one of the Sokol boards from his collection for Good Life Action Sports. The group now is working with Spohn Ranch, a Los Angeles-based company that designs skate parks, to create a state-of-the-art park for the Norfolk community.

Thompson said he hopes to have the park open by National Skateboarding Day, June 21, 2020, about a month before skateboarding is introduced as an Olympic sport.

Thompson added that he intends to hold onto his little piece of history that ties Norfolk to his favorite pastime for awhile.

“It was just cool to find out that Norfolk has a history with skateboarding,” Thompson said. “Here we are trying to do the next phase of skateboarding and really do something special, and you find out it’s been here since ’64.”

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