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Borderlands: Smokey Bear: A Legend Is Made 13 (1995)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Smokey Bear: A Legend Is Made

Article first published in Vol. 13, 1995.

By Cesar Rodriguez

In May of 1950, a blazing inferno ripped though the Lincoln National Forest, engulfing everything in its path. Acre after acre, the forest was rapidly consumed by a ghastly man-made fire. Every firefighter from miles away was summoned to help out one of the worst fires in New Mexico's history. Soldiers from Fort Bliss and school boys were excused from their duties and classes to help fight the blaze. The fire burned over 18,000 acres. Amidst the devastation, firefighters found a tiny bear cub clinging to the top of a tree. He was to become the heart and soul of a campaign that had begun almost a decade earlier: Smokey Bear, one of the most recognized symbols in America. 

""Image caption: Smokey Bear at age 10. Photo by Cesar Rodriguez and Smokey Bear Museum

The concept of fire prevention begun in the early 1940s, long before the fire and the discovery of the orphan bear. During World War II, Americans were encouraged to prevent forest fires in order to save trees that were needed for the production of military vessels and weapons.

The first ad used posters of Adolf Hitler which threatened American with the words, "Save the forests or pay the consequences." The strategy was successful at first, but Americans felt uneasy with so many posters of Hitler around.

The next posters were a series of eight made by Walt Disney, featuring Bambi. Children made this campaign successful by wanting to take the posters home and therefore taking the idea of fire prevention with them.

In 1944, the National Ad Council came up with the idea of using a bear to symbolize fire prevention. On August 9, 1944, the Smokey Bear campaign was born. Smokey was named after a fearless New York firefighter and hero, Smokey Joe Martin. This campaign was fully implemented before the little cub was found in the Lincoln National Forest.

Dorothy Gray Guck, the wife of a forest fire dispatcher, said "May 4 was the beginning of a forest fire known to the whole nation, not because of its size or losses, but because a tiny five-pound black bear cub named Smokey was rescued from it."

The cub was taken to a veterinarian and treated for burns. He spent the next couple of weeks recuperating with Ray Bell, assistant warden of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department. The bear cub captivated American hearts and was later incorporated with the fire preventing bear designed in 1944.

Kester Kay Flock, Supervisor of the Santa Fe National Forests, suggested that the cub, then being called "Hot Foot" because of his badly singed feet, be taken to Washington D.C. The National Ad Council wanted to make him a living symbol of the fire-preventing bear.

Smokey Bear was not one person's idea. The credit actually goes to three men: Bill Bergoffen, Don Belding and Rudolph Wendelin.

Wendelin, the artist in the group, is the man who drew Smokey and even designed a 20-cent postage stamp depicting a bear cub clinging to a burnt tree, with the famous Smokey Bear emblem as a background. This was the only time that the U.S. Postal Service issued a postage stamp honoring an individual animal.

Smokey adjusted to residing in the Rock Creek Zoological Garden in Washington D.C. He was an overnight sensation, and thousands of adults and children visited him. Originally, Smokey was to have been formally presented to the Boy and Girl Scouts of American, but all Americans soon claimed him as theirs. 

In 1962, Smokey was given a mate named Goldie. She was flown into Washington in hopes that the two bears would produce offspring, but that did not occur. 

By 1964, Smokey was receiving so much fan mail that on April 29 of that year, the U.S. Postal Service awarded Smokey his own zip code of 20252. It is said that Smokey received more mail that time than anyone living in Washington D.C., including the president.

By 1975, Smokey Bear had exceeded his life expectancy, and plans were being made to send him back to his hometown of Capitan, N.M. Before plans were effected, however, he died. Smokey was transported at night back to Captain and buried in the forest in an unmarked spot. There was little publicity about this burial because officials did not want to take attention away from the fire prevention issue.

""Image caption: Entrance to Smokey Bear Historical State Park in Capitan, New Mexico. Photo by Cesar Rodriguez

In 1979, the Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan opened its doors. Visitors walk through a simulated forest fire, then view wall exhibits which document the history of fire prevention efforts. A circular theater presents a film about Smokey's survival of the forest fire, mixing animation and special effects.

Theresa Engleking, curator of the Smokey Bear Museum in Capitan, says, "In 1994 we celebrated Smokey Bear's 50th birthday. Even though this bear wasn't born until 1950, he played a vital role in helping Smokey become really popular."

Smokey's birthday is celebrated every Fourth of July with the Smokey Bear Stampede which includes a fun run, parade, barbecue, western dance and a rodeo.

Recently, a popular ad campaign reminded us that the name of this American icon is "Smokey Bear," not "Smokey the Bear," as a popular song tagged him in 1952. After all, you wouldn't say Easter the Bunny or Santa the Claus, would you?

Regardless of how Americans remember him, Smokey will continue to remind people that "care will prevent fires." From his roots in Captain, N.M., to his days of worldwide fame in our nation's capital, Smokey Bear has always sent the right message: "Remember, only you can prevent forest fires."

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