An agency icon at 50

  • Sign at Smokey Bear Historical State Park in Capitan, New Mexico

    J.D. Marston
  • Smokey clip art

  • Smokey clip art

  • Cartoon commemorated Bill Bergoffen as "man who put pants on Smokey"

    udoph Wendelin
  • Smokey Bear balloon is almost 100 feet high

    Friends of Smokey Bear Balloon

CAPITAN, N.M. - Dear Boys and Girls: I'm writing this letter in a beautiful forest where Smokey Bear was born. I came because I'd read that he turned 50 years old in August, and I wanted to see his old stomping grounds.

You won't believe what I found.

First of all, everything is named after Smokey. I stopped at the Smokey Bear Restaurant on Smokey Bear Boulevard and ate a Smokey Bear omelette that tasted just like the ones back home they call "Denver." There must have been 10 things on the menu named "Smokey."

Then I drove a block to the Smokey Bear Historical State Park next to the Smokey Bear Museum and asked directions to the Smokey Bear Ranger District where I assumed I'd find a marker.

The road was very rough, more like a riverbed without the water, and I bumped along 10 miles through the Capitan Gap to a north-facing mountain where I stopped and went for a walk.

There were many pine trees, most of them over my head. A few stuck up in the wind and made soft whooshing noises. There were clumps of grass everywhere and oak brush so thick it was hard to walk.

I saw two deer bounding through the woods. I could hear different animals chattering. While sitting on a big rock in the sun, I looked up and saw three birds soaring. I'll bet they were hunting. Once I heard a loud noise and got scared because the forest ranger had told me that mountain lions were around. There are bears, too, maybe cousins of Smokey.

I was surprised to see the forest so green and healthy. For as long as I can remember, the only pictures ever shown of this famous forest were of a black wasteland with a little bear cub clinging to a charred stump - the tree where I thought Smokey was born.

But as I began reading Smokey's new biography by William Lawter Jr., I found out that Smokey wasn't really born here. He was conceived in a bureaucrat's office in Washington, D.C., and brought to life on an artist's easel.

You see, boys and girls, Aug. 9, 1944, the date we celebrate as Smokey's birthday, was the day some man in the government sent out an order for a drawing of a bear to help stop forest fires. He asked artists to draw a bear with a short nose and an "appealing, knowledgeable, quizzical" expression. He warned that it could not look like the "bear that symbolizes Russia."

The United States needed trees to build ships and airplanes for World War II. But forests were being burned by wildfires, nine out of 10 started by careless people. An advertising campaign was begun.

The government man first tried scary-looking pictures of Japanese with big teeth, and Ranger Jim, a stern-looking man who picked on Westerners just like forest rangers do today. Then he borrowed Walt Disney's Bambi, which kids loved, so deer, squirrels and beavers were auditioned before settling on Smokey drawn by artist Albert Staehle.

This was way before TV, so Smokey's voice on the radio was made by putting an announcer's head in a bucket to growl the famous Smokey line, "Only YOU can prevent forest fires."

As time went on, government men were constantly "improving" Smokey's picture. They pulled out his sharp claws. They filed off his teeth. They trimmed his hair and took the hump out of his neck. They gave him fingers because they wanted him to do things no bear could do, like hold a shovel and dump water on fires. The biggest change was when they put blue jeans on him because the government man thought he looked "naked."

In short they wanted to make him more human, a task complicated when a real bear cub, only two months old, was found during a forest fire in May 1950 in these New Mexico woods. Barely five furry pounds, the cub was whimpering for his mother. Firefighters carried him to camp where his crying kept them up all night.

Some men who had nearly died in a wildfire blowup wanted to leave him in the woods, but a game warden flew the cub to Santa Fe, where a vet nursed him, and a photographer, dabbing honey on the chin of the warden's daughter, got a picture that captured America's heart - the cub licking her face. Soon the new Smokey was living in Washington's National Zoo.

But while Smokey Bear in dungarees went on to become the second-most beloved image after Santa, Smokey the cub bit and scratched and grew into a listless, caged animal who wouldn't breed with Goldie Bear, flown in from New Mexico to be his "wife."

Smokey Bear with fingers got his own zip code, "Smokey Bear 20252," and was licensed for 160 products ranging from charcoal briquettes to bubble bath and earned the Forest Service $250,000 a year in royalties.

Smokey Bear with claws grew old, got arthritis and was finally upstaged by Ling-Ling, a panda with more photogenic eyes.

In the 1970s, Smokey was replaced by a new, frisky cub and moved into a cage that just said, "American Black Bear."

On Nov. 9, 1976, the real bear died and was put in a box with ice, shipped here to Capitan and buried quickly at night because of the smell. A nice rock and plaque were placed over him. About 26,000 people visit his grave every year. Then they go to the museum and buy dolls and belt buckles of the imaginary bear.

Hardly anybody makes the rough trip I did to see how Smokey's forest, once black and ugly, is young and vibrant, with lots of wildlife.

No one reminds boys and girls that life comes and goes, that everything changes from year to year, just like their school pictures, and that forests "destroyed" on TV this summer will be wonderfully alive when they grow up.

Smokey in the ads still stands in the black and warns about playing with matches, a message that must be working. One thousand children a month write to him asking to become junior forest rangers. And, this year in the Rocky Mountains, 1,019 fires were started by humans, compared with 1,357 started by lightning.

In Lawter's book, Smokey Bear 20252, one of Smokey's creators said: "The biggest mistake the Forest Service ever made was the little bear. They should have realized two things. First, anything living is going to die. How would you like to be a retailer with 10,000 dolls when the bear died?

"Second, kids would go to the zoo and say, "That isn't Smokey. Where are his pants?" It was a terrible, terrible mistake. Smokey is an image. The live bear was a dumb thing all the way around."

Jim Carrier writes a regular column for The Denver Post, where this article originally appeared Aug. 17.

William Clifford Lawter Jr.'s book, Smokey Bear 20252: A Biography, a $16.95 paperback, was published this year by Lindsay Smith Publishers, 703/922-3619, or for credit card orders, 800/879-4214.

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