New Mexico -- Town Still Celebrates Smokey Bear's Legend

CAPITAN, N.M. - He was the right bear at the right time.

Smokey's moment came in 1950 when firefighters discovered a burned, 10-week-old cub clinging to a blackened tree trunk in the Lincoln National Forest. The fire, which ravaged 17,000 acres near this town in southeast New Mexico, was believed to have been started by a discarded cigarette butt.

The nation had already embraced Smokey Bear as the symbol of fire prevention.

Problem was that although Smokey already lived in ads, posters and children's imaginations, there was no bear there. The image of Smokey was simply the creation of an advertising artist.

After Smokey's rescue, a doting Santa Fe, N.M., fire warden and his daughter nursed the tiny orphan cub to health on a mixture of pabulum, honey and milk.

By all reports, he was a precocious black bear cub who liked being the center of attention and took naps in a washing machine.

His saga caught the attention of U.S. forestry officials, and the bear was drafted for a lifetime of service. He moved to Washington's National Zoo, and his legend spread like wildfire.

The original Smokey's no longer with us. He died in 1976, the physical equivalent of a 70-year-old person.

But in his hometown of Capitan - where the main drag is called Smokey Bear Boulevard - the bear's legend lives on.

Visitors can dine at the Smokey Bear restaurant, shop for souvenirs at a Smokey store, and tour a state park dedicated to Smokey and his legacy.

The bear facts

Park visitors learn surprisingly interesting U.S. fire-prevention history, but the joy of the place is the bear facts.

-- There's the boastful: At the height of Smokey's popularity, surveys indicated his image was the nation's second most recognizable figure after Santa Claus. And his catch phrase, "Remember, only you can prevent forest fires," still lives on today.

-- The mundane: The bear's middle name is not "The." Many make the mistake of calling him Smokey the Bear because songwriters added "the" to make the name fit the rhythm of the four-verse Smokey song.

-- And the only-in-America: He was the first bear to appear on TV's "What's My Line?" - successfully stumping the panel.

After watching a film about you know who, most park visitors are drawn to a tiny nature trail leading to Smokey's grave. His original home, the Capitan mountains, are just a few miles to the north, and clearly visible.

"The poor thing," says Sharlene Levesque, 33, of Danville, Va., as she reads on the bear's gravestone of his humble beginnings. As with many visitors of a certain age, she has vivid memories of the famous TV star.

"I used to cry during the commercials."

Friends and foes

The nation heeded Smokey's message about the horrors of forest fires.

Since his introduction, the acreage lost to fires has dropped by a factor of 90 percent. The number of wildfires decreased by one-half, even though 10 times as many people visit public lands as did in the 1940s.

Smokey was so successful he eventually drew the ire of scientists and environmentalists. Forest fires, they noted, are a natural phenomenon and preventing them is disruptive to the environment.

Those bent on conspiracy theories even saw sinister motives behind the cuddly facade. By preventing forest fires, the U.S. Forest Service could arrange for logging on the millions of acres that once burned down, they reasoned.

As park visitors learn, the spark for Smokey was lighted during World War II. Civil-defense officials feared the Japanese would try to burn down forests to destroy natural resources. To combat the danger, they began an advertising campaign about the dangers of forest fires. Walt Disney even volunteered Bambi, who was featured in a fire-prevention poster.

In 1944, an artist created the image we would know as Smokey as the official forest-fire spokesbear.

The animal was named the following year, reportedly in honor of Smokey Joe Martin, assistant chief of the New York City Fire Department.

The image was soon humanized. Smokey lost his fangs and paws and gained fingers that allowed him to carry fire buckets - and eventually high-five firefighters.

His own ZIP code

It was this legacy that young Smokey Bear (the mammal) inherited in 1950. When he arrived in his new home aboard a Piper Cub airplane, a crowd greeted him at Washington's National Airport.

Over the next few decades, the bear's popularity soared as he and America's baby boomers came of age.

He spawned a TV show, a doll, a song, countless posters and coloring books.

Congress passed a law to ensure that licensed products earned money for fire prevention and did not diminish the great bear's image.

Smokey recruited millions of junior forest rangers, who wrote so many letters to the famous bear he was given his own ZIP code - the only celebrity at the time to receive this honor aside from the U.S. president.

"I think everybody was a Smokey fan," says Virginian Greg Chesher, 30, during a park visit on a cross-country trip this spring.

After Smokey retired in 1975, his adopted son, also rescued from a New Mexico forest fire, took up the duties. Although he found success, he never matched the popularity of the original bear. Young Smokey died in 1991, and he hasn't been replaced.

Likewise, other talking animals drawn into public service also have fallen short of the famous bear (Woodsy Owl and McGruff the Crime Dog, for instance).

As for Smokey, his legend lives on across the continent, most recently in his own Web site ( Even Mexico and Canada have adopted the symbol.

And many adults get misty-eyed when the fellow is mentioned.

When Smokey died in 1976, the venerable Washington Post got downright silly. It ran an obituary for "Bear," described as a transplanted New Mexico native who spent most of his life as a Washington, D.C., resident.

It cited his survivors - his adopted son and wife of 15 years, Goldie Bear (not a blood relation despite the same last name). The newspaper also mentioned Smokey's years of government service, and noted that he had been granted membership in the retired federal employees association. ----------------------------------------------------------------- More information

Smokey Bear State Historical Park is at 118 First St., Capitan, N.M. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: 25 cents, under 6 free. Call 505-354-2748.