Happy Birthday, Smokey Bear

New Mexico village boasts Smokey’s museum and park.

SmokeyBearOn August 9, 1944, the image of Smokey Bear was born, when the U.S. Forest Service and the Ad Council settled on him as a mascot for their fire-prevention efforts. Six years later, firefighters rescued a real orphaned baby bear that was clinging to a charred tree in a devastating blaze in New Mexico’s Lincoln National Forest. The bear, which had badly burned paws, nicknamed Hotfoot and taken to Santa Fe for treatment. When his story became known — more slowly than today — he was rechristened Smokey Bear, personifying the character created during World War II. Smokey was then moved to the National Zoo Washington, DC.

After receiving millions of visitors a the zoo, Smokey died in 1976, and though another rescued cub took his place, he never found the fame of the original Smokey. After his death, the bear’s body was returned to its home in the Lincoln National Forest, where he was buried without fanfare. Meanwhile, the Smokey Bear Museum had opened in 1961 in the village of Capitan in south-central New Mexico. The museum, housed in a rustic one-room building, is filled with Smokey memorabilia, photos and posters that chronicle the history of Smokey Bear and his message to prevent forest fires, along with the inevitable gift shop chock full of Smokey souvenirs. By the way, it’s Smokey Bear, not Smokey the Bear. The definite article was added by songwriters who needed an extra syllable.

Smokey Bear Museum, near the state-run Smokey Bear Historical Park.
Smokey Bear Museum, near the state-run Smokey Bear Historical Park.

Where to find it? At 102 Smokey Bear Boulevard, on the north side of New Mexico Highway 380, just west of the intersection with State Highway 48, and just east of the Smokey Bear Historical Park, where the famous little cub’s grave is found. Operated by the state Forestry Department, it features a visitor center with exhibits about forest health, forest fires, wildland/urban interface issues, fire ecology, the history of the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program and a theater showing a 10-minute film discussing today’s fire and forest health issues. An outdoor exhibit features six of the vegetative life zones found in New Mexico, an outdoor amphitheater that is used for educational programs for school groups and the final resting place of the “living symbol” Smokey Bear. Also located at the park is a playground, picnic area with group shelters and the original train depot for the Village of Capitan. Entry is a modest $2 for adults and $1 for children.

Unless you happen to be in Capitan, it’s too late now, but for the record, the grand opening and dedication of the renovated visitors center, guest lecturers and a cake honoring the recent 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act and of course, the 70th birthday of Smokey Bear’s campaign. Also, celebrations today at the Smokey Bear Ranger Station in Ruidoso.