Smokey the Bear was invented when the the U.S. Forest Service decided it needed a mascot for what were openly propaganda purposes, intended to persuade the public to be more careful when lighting any fires – from matches to campfires – in national parks.
“A bear was chosen. His name was inspired by “Smokey” Joe Martin, a New York City Fire Department hero who suffered burns and blindness during a bold 1922 rescue.
Smokey’s debut poster was released on August 9, 1944, which is considered his anniversary date. Overseen by the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign, the first poster was illustrated by Albert Staehle. In it Smokey was depicted wearing jeans and a campaign hat, pouring a bucket of water on a campfire. The message underneath reads, “Smokey says – Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires!” Knickerbocker Bears gained the license to produce Smokey Bear dolls in 1944. Also in 1944, Forest Service worker Rudy Wendelin became the full-time campaign artist; he was considered Smokey Bear’s “caretaker” until he retired in 1973.” *
: Recent Smokey public service commercial (Smokey age 70).
: Popular song with prefatory narration by Jimmy Cagney.
: Recent educational short (animated) for Smokey’s ‘junior rangers.’
: Story of the living Smokey Bear, narrated by William Boyd (as Hopalong Cassidy)
“The living symbol of Smokey Bear was an American black bear cub who in the spring of 1950 was caught in the Capitan Gap fire, a wildfire that burned 17,000 acres (69 km2) in the Lincoln National Forest, in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. Smokey had climbed a tree to escape the blaze, but his paws and hind legs had been burned. According to some stories, he was rescued by a game warden after the fire, but according to the New Mexico State Forestry Division, it was actually a group of soldiers from Fort Bliss, Texas, who had come to help fight the fire, that discovered the bear cub and brought him back to the camp. At first he was called Hotfoot Teddy, but he was later renamed Smokey, after the mascot. There are conflicting stories regarding the individual or individuals who first helped nurse the cub after the fire. According to the New York Times obituary for Homer C. Pickens, then Assistant Director of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, he kept the cub at his home for a while, trying to nurse him back to health. According to other records, including a story in Life Magazine, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish Ranger Ray Bell took him to Santa Fe, where he, his wife Ruth, and their children Don and Judy cared for the cub. The story was picked up by the national news services and Smokey became a celebrity. Soon after, Smokey was flown in a Piper Cub airplane to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.. A special room was prepared for him at the St. Louis zoo for an overnight fuel stop during the trip, and when he arrived at the National Zoo, several hundred spectators, including members of the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, photographers, and media, were there to welcome him to his new home.
Smokey Bear eating from the new “honey tree” — a tree that automatically dispenses honey and berries — installed in Smokey’s cage in the Summer of 1984.
Smokey Bear lived at the National Zoo for 26 years. During that time he received millions of visitors as well as so many letters addressed to him (up to 13,000 a week) that in 1964 the United States Postal Service gave him his own unique zip code. He developed a love for peanut butter sandwiches, in addition to his daily diet of bluefish and trout.
Upon his death on November 9, 1976, Smokey’s remains were returned by the government to Capitan, New Mexico, and buried at what is now the Smokey Bear Historical Park. The plaque at his grave reads, “This is the resting place of the first living Smokey Bear…the living symbol of wildfire prevention and wildlife conservation.” The Washington Post ran a semi-humorous obituary for Smokey, labeled “Bear”, calling him a transplanted New Mexico native who had resided for many years in Washington, D.C., with many years of government service. It also mentioned his family, including his wife, Goldie Bear, and “adopted son” Little Smokey. The obituary noted that Smokey and Goldie were not blood-relatives, despite the fact that they shared the same “last name” of “Bear”. The Wall Street Journal included an obituary for Smokey Bear on the front page of the paper, on Nov 11, 1976, and so many newspapers included articles and obituaries that the National Zoo archives include four complete scrapbooks devoted to them (Series 12, boxes 66-67).” *
(I’ll try to explain why I suddenly found this story interesting in my next post. But I admit that I find it a charming story, nevertheless. For now, think of this as my annual Public Service Announcement.)
Smokey’s dedicated website: http://www.smokeybear.com/
: Smokey’s debut poster, 1944.