On a trip to New Mexico, Karen and I visited one of those places that she fondly calls a hidden gem: the Smokey Bear Historical Park and Museum in Capitan. We were traveling through New Mexico for a week in May 2017 with our friends John and Lolly, visiting national park sites. As we made our way from White Sands National Monument to Carlsbad Caverns, we all agreed it would be worth a detour to Capitan to check it out.
Whenever we write about Smokey Bear, one of the first comments we get is, “You realize that Smokey Bear is not associated with the National Parks, don’t you?” Yes, we’re aware Smokey works for the Department of Agriculture, as in the National Forest Service, rather than the National Park Service, which is part of the Department of the Interior. But come on, how can we not recognize his contribution to the protection of our incredible public lands, and – more importantly – he’s Smokey Bear! We stop at every National Forest Visitor Center when we see him standing with his shovel outside the front door.
In Capitan, there are two facilities dedicated to Smokey: the Smokey Bear Historical Park, and the Smokey Bear Museum Gift Shop. The New Mexico State Forestry Division runs the park and charges a fee for entry. The gift shop does not charge an entry fee and is adjacent to the park. It was not clear to us if the park and gift shop were associated, but it didn’t matter, they were right next to each other, so it was a short walk from one to the other.
We started at the gift shop. The nice lady there gave us a brief oral history of Smokey and the memorabilia she had on display. Under glass was every possible piece of Smokey merchandise from the past 70 years. There were also t-shirts, hats, and patches for sale that are hard to find anywhere else. Believe me, I’ve looked.
The Smokey Bear Historical Park also had an impressive number of displays and interpretive information about Smokey. We read all the placards and watched the video in their small theater. I now have a much better appreciation of Smokey and the public service campaign that created his character. With all of this newfound knowledge, I’ve put together a list of the nine things I hadn’t previously known about Smokey Bear.
Number One: Karen has a crush on Smokey Bear.
I had suspected this before, but after our visit to the park, I’m sure of it. My suspicions began to grow a few years ago when we were at a National Forest Service Visitor Center in the Black Hills. We asked a stranger to take our picture with the life-sized statue of Smokey Bear in the parking lot. I had forgotten the picture until a couple of weeks later when I was looking through my photos from the trip on my laptop. “What is this?” I asked. “Karen, what are you doing in this picture?” I showed her the photo, and she giggled. “Are you holding Smokey’s hand? Did you think I wouldn’t notice?”
There were other signs. Karen’s always too quick to agree to have her picture taken with Smokey whenever we’re in a National Forest and there’s a fire danger display. There’s Karen in the photo, standing next to him while he lets us know that the Fire Danger is Extreme Today!
The clincher was when I looked at my phone after taking her picture with Smokey inside the park’s Visitor Center. She’s glowing, and yes, she’s holding his hand.
I asked her, “What is it about Smokey? Do you like that he doesn’t have a shirt on, because I look a lot like him when I don’t have a shirt on. If you squint your eyes, the hair on my back looks like fur. Is it the hat, the belt buckle, the shovel? I need to know.”
She smiled, shook her head and said slowly, “It’s the whole package.”
Number Two: Smokey was a real bear.
The Forest Service authorized the Smokey Bear Wildfire Prevention campaign in 1944, but it wasn’t until six years later that the program had a living symbol: a live bear. In the spring of 1950, the Capitan Gap Fire burned over 17,000 acres close to the town of Capitan. In the smoldering aftermath, firefighters found an orphaned cub in the trees. The fire had burned his paws and hind legs, but a local rancher, who had been part of the firefighting crew, agreed to take the bear home and care for him. His original name was Hotfoot Teddy.
The story of the rescued bear drew national attention. His popularity continued to grow, and the state of New Mexico thought the interest in the little bear could be used for the public good. The state game warden offered Hotfoot Teddy to the Forest Service so long as he would be used to promote the prevention of wildfires. The bear was renamed Smokey Bear and lived at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. until his death in 1976.
Number Three: There is a hot air balloon in the shape of Smokey’s head.
I’ve only seen pictures, but I’m guessing a 97-foot tall Smokey head is a little scary to see up close.
Owned and operated by Friends of the Smokey Bear Balloon, Inc., the hot air balloon likeness of Smokey flies at public events, usually in the Southwest. It’s the second Smokey hot air balloon. The first was destroyed in 2004 when it snagged on a radio tower in Albuquerque. Miraculously, the accident did not cause any injuries, but the balloon’s pilot and the two passengers had to climb most of the way down the 700-foot tower.
The balloon’s purpose is to draw attention to Smokey and spread his fire prevention message. Yet, at least a couple of U.S. senators have complained over the years that the $31,000 the federal government contributes each year to the cost of operating the balloon should be eliminated. I should note that $31,000 is just a fraction of the annual cost of operating the balloon.
I’m keeping my eye on the Event Calendar on the Friends’ website in hopes that someday we’ll be able to work into our travels an in-person viewing of the balloon.
Number Four: Other spokesanimals besides a bear were considered for the forest fire prevention campaign.
A couple of years before the Smokey campaign began, the Forest Service organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention program. The program was intended to increase the public’s awareness of the need to prevent forest fires due to human behavior and carelessness. Engaging the public in forest fire prevention at that time was especially important at the time because the country had a shortage of firefighters due to the number of men off fighting in World War II.
At the time, Disney had just released the movie Bambi, which was a big hit. The movie’s woodland theme was a perfect fit for the program, and Disney agreed to loan the use of Bambi’s image to the CFFP for one year for their awareness campaign. The Bambi promotion was a success, but Disney would not extend the contract beyond the first year. The CFFP went looking for another spokesanimal.
They considered a squirrel. While I have nothing against squirrels, I think they made the right decision to move up the food chain and select a bear. A careless camper wouldn’t think twice about shooing away a fire prevention squirrel, badge or no badge. Try that with Smokey, and you’ll end up with a shovel up your you-know-what. Besides, how big of a shovel could a squirrel carry?
Number Five: He had a girlfriend, sorry, Karen.
Good guess, but no, she’s not Woodsie Owl, that would be weird. In 1962, the National Zoo paired Smokey with a female bear named Goldie Bear. The thought was that if Smokey had offspring, then a direct descendant of the original Smokey could continue as the living symbol. They never had cubs. Maybe Goldie should have tried holding his hand.
Number Six: He has his own zip code, 20252.
According to one of the interpretive signs in the Historical Park, in 1962, Smokey received more mail than any other resident of Washington D.C., including the President of the United States. In response, the Postal Service issued Smokey his own zip code, and the Forest Service assigned a secretary to Smokey. In 1994, The Postal Service decommissioned 20252, Smokey’s zip code. However, there is a happy ending; they reactivated the zip code in 2014 to honor of the 70th anniversary of the Smokey Bear campaign.
For fans who are more into 21st-century modes of communication, Smokey has his own Facebook page, Twitter account, Instagram account, and YouTube channel. How does he find the time?
Number Seven: His name isn’t Smokey the Bear.
Smokey’s name has caused me endless confusion over the last few years. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve referred to him as Smokey the Bear. But there is no “the” in his name.
When I researched this online, I found that I wasn’t alone in my confusion. Many people refer to him as Smokey the Bear. The cause of the confusion is due in part because Disney published a Little Golden book titled Smokey the Bear in the 1950s, and in it Smokey refers to himself as Smokey the Bear. A popular kid’s song, also from the 1950s, added to the confusion. The songwriters added “the” to his name because it better matched the rhythm of the song. I was glad to learn I’m not going crazy. His official name is simply, Smokey Bear.
Number Eight: Smokey Bear is the longest running public service campaign in U.S. history.
Smokey’s popularity is still going strong over 70 years later; he has over 300,000 followers on Facebook. Imagine the public outcry if they tried to sunset the Smokey campaign. That won’t happen; his brand alone is worth a considerable amount. In 1952, Congress passed an Act that removed Smokey’s image from the public domain and put it under the control of the Department of Agriculture. Today, you must have a license to produce merchandise that bears his image. The royalties from these products help fund wildlife prevention efforts.
Number Nine: There is an award named after him.
It’s a series of awards. Several organizations, including the Forest Service, collectively sponsor the awards program. Sometimes referred to as the Smokey Oscar, because it looks similar to the Academy Award statue, the Smokey Bear Award has several levels: Golden Smokey, Silver Smokey, Bronze Smokey, as well as a Smokey Certificate and Smokey Plaque.
According to the Smokey Bear website, in the world of wildfire prevention, there is no greater honor than to receive a Smokey Bear award, especially the national Gold Smokey award. These special awards are reserved for people or organizations that provide sustained, outstanding service, with significant program impact, in the wildfire prevention arena. Honorees demonstrate innovation, creativity, commitment and passion for wildfire prevention.
Smokey died Nov. 9, 1976. He was eulogized in The Post with a full-blown obituary. After his body was flown back to New Mexico, they buried him behind their main building. Our tour of the Historical Park ended with a solemn visit to Smokey’s final resting place.We followed a garden path to a boulder that had a metal plaque explaining that this is where they buried Smokey. We paused for a moment and bowed our heads; R.I.P. Smokey.
The museum and park are worth a visit if you’re ever in the area of Capitan, New Mexico. And, if your plans take you there in early May, be sure to attend Smokey Bear Days. The organizer’s website describes the festival: Started in 2004 to celebrate Smokey’s 60th birthday, Smokey Bear Days has become an annual 2-day event held the first Friday and Saturday of May. The Smokey Bear Days’ mission is to promote the fire prevention message and educate visitors to the Capitan area about the dangers of unwanted, human-caused wildfires.