Where can you stroll from your room at the Smokey Bear Motel and in less than 60 seconds be sitting inside the Smokey Bear Restaurant ordering a Smokey Bear Burger?
That would be Capitan, N.M., (population 1,500), the Smokey Bear capital of the world, where all things Smokey can be found along Smokey Bear Boulevard including Smokey Bear Historical Park and the Smokey Bear Gift Shop and Museum.
(By the way, the name of the most famous bear in the world is SMOKEY BEAR and not Smokey THE Bear. You can look it up in a federal law called the Smokey Bear Act.)
Many Americans may not know it but, historically, there have been two faces to Smokey Bear. The first Smokey was an idea born Aug. 9, 1944, and presented to the public for the first time in 1945 in the form of a colorful poster for the Forest Service that stated: Smokey says care will prevent 9 out of 10 woods fires!
The second semblance was a badly singed black bear cub, found May 9, 1950, after the 17,000-acre Capitan Gap fire had burned out. He would become the living symbol of Smokey while residing at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
That 3-month-old, 4-pound cubby was “adopted” for a few weeks by Ray Bell, a game warden for the New Mexico Game and Fish Department. Bell said, “It was just instinct” that made him take the bear home as it made him think of “that poster bear.” In his house, Bell’s wife, Ruth, became the creature’s caretaker, but it was the ranger’s daughter, Judy, 5, who became the cub’s best friend, and the family dog, Jet, was its play pal.
“It’s my understanding that the people in the (forestry) program say the real Smokey is the poster Smokey, and I think they maintain that to this day,” said William Lawter, author of “Smokey Bear: 20252,” the definitive book on Smokey. “The thought was the poster bear was something that you could vary the message. If things are going good, he can be friendly. If not, he could be more stern.
“As for the Smokey found in the fire, I have been told that just a few agreed to send him to Washington. The artists and some in the Forest Service did not agree with that. … There was a lot of opposition to that. The guy running the program had a big broad vision and took the view that any publicity is good publicity.”
The living symbol of the fire prevention program proved a smash hit at the zoo, drawing millions of visitors during his lifetime. Meanwhile, hundreds of licensed items of Smokey Bear merchandise, ranging from stuffed dolls, mugs, Golden Books and watches to figurines, pajamas, clocks and lunch boxes, flooded the market. And in 1952, Nashville country hit maker Eddy Arnold even recorded a song, “The Ballad of Smokey.”
While at the zoo Smokey found a mate, Goldie Bear, and after he retired, due to arthritis, in 1975, another black bear, Little Smokey, aka Smokey Bear II, took his place.
Old Smokey died Nov. 9, 1976, at the age of 26, and his body was flown to Capitan and laid to rest in Smokey Bear Historical Park in the shadows of the Capitan Mountains where he was born.
Smokey in the park
According to park ranger Wendy Boss, about 15,000 visitors come every year to see Smokey’s grave and enjoy the two-acre park, which features an 850-foot-long boardwalk that takes you past interpretive exhibits of six of the seven vegetative life zones in New Mexico and the New Mexico Wildland Fallen Firefighter Memorial.
The memorial marker at the foot of Smokey’s grave reads: “This is the resting place of the first living Smokey Bear. In 1950 when Smokey was a tiny cub, wildfire burned his forest home in the nearby Capitan Mountains of the Lincoln National Forest. Firefighters found the badly burned cub clinging to a blackened tree and saved his life. In June 1950, the cub was flown to our Nation’s Capital to become the living symbol of wildfire prevention and wildlife conservation. After 25 years, he was replaced by another orphaned black bear from the Lincoln National Forest.”
The question the ranger said she gets asked most is, “Was Smokey a real bear?”
Boss shared a couple of secrets about Capitan’s best-known native. She explained that he was interred at night because, “There were threats of his body being kidnapped. His body had been packed in ice (for the flight from Washington, D.C.) so they needed to get it buried pretty quickly.”
While standing beside his grave, which features a carving of young Smokey as he clings to a timber mast, Boss spotted something in the grass, reached down and plucked a plastic orb from the ground.
“Wait a minute,” she said. “Smokey lost an eye. I’ll have to get some Super Glue to put back his eyeball. Every time it rains, an eye gets knocked out, and sometimes a bird pecks it out.”
The park also boasts a 6,000-square-foot museum dedicated to Smokey, campfire safety, fire ecology, wildfire prevention and firefighting. A video of Ray Bell explaining how Smokey was found and cared for before he went to Washington proves to be one of the highlights, and especially cool is the mother lode of Smokey memorabilia including vintage fire-safety posters. Among others sights stands a life-size shirtless Smokey holding a shovel and wearing a ranger hat, jeans, belt and work boots and a unique Smokey Bear vending machine that sold candy.
The bear business
Bordering the park inside a small log cabin awaits the Smokey Bear Museum and Gift Shop, operated by Smokey Bear’s Hometown Association. Here, gift-shop hostess Nateal Sammy says, “This is the place that houses everyone’s Smokey memories. I take good care of the memorabilia for the people who gave it to us. I’m maybe a little bit storyteller, a little bit sales clerk and a little bit historian.
“This is kind of like a time capsule where you’re going to find a wealth of knowledge and history about Smokey Bear and some pretty cool Smokey souvenirs. Ninety percent of them were donated. We have so many that we rotate them. Some are so unique they are priceless.
“We try to keep the doors open by selling merchandise on the side,” said Sammy, who described the souvenirs as ranging from T-shirts, postcards and pencils to more elaborate items like a Smokey Bear LEGOS set and a Smokey Bear hoodie, which at $40 is the most expensive item in the shop.
“I just got some beautiful, thousand-piece puzzles in. One is a retro campaign poster showing Smokey and his forest friends,” said Sammy, whose favorite artifact in the museum is a late 1950s ceramic Smokey bobblehead. “It’s adorable, but I love them all.”
She also puts in a plug for the Smokey Bear Stampede, a rodeo which features a Fourth of July parade starring a ranger dressed in a Smokey costume and half a dozen fire engines. The event is ranked a top-10 small-town Fourth of July celebration.
As for what made the bear with two faces a big hit with baby boomers, author Lawter noted it was an era when there was not as much competition for children’s attention.
“There were not a lot of those things back in the ’50s, so Smokey sort of stood out. The program was successful because there were problems. Most forest fires were started by accident by people: by men flipping their cigarettes out the windows as they drove and women being careless with burning trash in the backyard. Somebody had the idea that you could take this to the kids and the kids could talk to their parents. So, they pushed Smokey in the schools. A kid would fuss if his dad threw a cigarette out the window,” said Lawter.
“Today, people are bombarded with all kinds of stuff with public service announcements, and everybody wants something new and fresh. Smokey is 76 years old and a bit long in the tooth.”
Nevertheless, millions continue to associate Smokey with forest-fire prevention, and, of course, can recite his most famous line: “Remember, only you can prevent forest fires.”
So exactly how popular was Smokey at his zenith?
Well, at one time he received as many as 1,000 letters a day at the zoo, thus the United States Postal Service gave him his own zip code in 1964. You can write him by simply addressing your envelope to: Smokey Bear, Washington, D.C. 20252.