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The True Story of Smokey Bear

By Frank E. Miller and Dorothy Guck

Last updated on Thursday, July 17, 2003

The original Smokey Bear. Photo by Harold Walter. Courtesy United States Forest Service
The original Smokey Bear.  Photo by Harold Walter. Courtesy United States Forest Service 

The village of Capitan, New Mexico has a story unique to the world. It is the birthplace and burial site of the world's most well-known bear. Smokey's story is factual although it might appear to be fictitious.

It is believed that on May 4, 1950, a carelessly discarded cigarette butt started the Los Tablos blaze in the Lincoln National Forest . On May 6, a second fire, known as the Capitan Gap fire, which was also man-caused, started in the same general area. Together these fires destroyed 17,000 acres of forest and grasslands. The monetary loss to private properties was great, but the loss to the wildlife and environment was even greater.

On May 8, a 70 mile per hour wind made it impossible to control the blaze. It was on this day that nineteen men were trapped in a rockslide while the holocaust raged around and passed them. They were rescued without any fatalities, but later expressed the opinion that they knew "just how a slice of toast feels."

It was on May 9 that a fire crew brought a badly singed bear cub into the fire camp. They had found the frightened cub clinging tenaciously to the side of a burnt pine tree. Badly burned about the buttocks and feet, he was given the name "Hotfoot," a monicker soon to be changed to Smokey Bear. His burns were tended to overnight at the nearby Flately Ranch, then he was flown by Game Warden Ray Bell to the veterinary hospital in Santa Fe. Bell later kept Smokey in his home where, it is said, he was a "mite domineering" with the other family pets and also somewhat of a ham. After all, what self-respecting cat or dog is going to argue with a bear?

Prior to the discovery of Smokey Bear, the Forest Service, in conjunction with the Advertising Council, in 1944 originated and authorized the use of a poster by artist Rudolph Wendelin, depicting Smokey Bear. Presently, Wendelin is still the artist whose work is used is fire prevention campaigns. The popularity of the campaign grew so great after the inclusion of Smokey that in 1952 Congress passed into law a bill governing the commercialization of the name and image of Smokey Bear.

It was about this time that Smokey was given his own zip code, due to the vast amount of mail he was receiving.

Upon Smokey's recovery in Santa Fe, the Forest Service had Smokey flown to Washington D.C. It is rumored that on this flight, an airport refused the pilot's request to land when it was learned that a bear was aboard the plane!

In July of 1950, then U.S. Senator Chaves of New Mexico presented Smokey to the school children of America. Smokey was now in his permanent home at the National Zoo, where millions visited and marveled at his story.

As a result of Smokey's life, the Village of Capitan, the state of New Mexico, the nation and possibly the entire world have been altered to some degree. A study was made of school children in the United States and selected foreign countries using familiar slogans to be finished when only the first few words were given. With "ONLY YOU," more children were able to complete "CAN PREVENT FOREST FIRES" than any other motto presented.

In 1956, a Smokey Bear Club, Inc. was formed in Capitan to further conservation efforts. The sum of $2,300 was raised and with donated materials and labor, a log cabin museum was constructed. The museum plans were drawn by a ranger's wife, Dorothy Guck. Her design of the museum was based on the Forest Service's bulletin, "How to Build a Log Cabin." The conservation efforts of the village were recognized in 1958 when President Dwight Eisenhower presented Capitan with the first "Smokey Oscar" for its efforts. The log cabin museum opened to the public in 1960 with free admission to all.

New Mexico adopted the black bear as the state animal, and on its golden anniversary in 1962, a female bear named Goldie from the Lincoln National Forest was sent to the Washington Zoo. No cubs were ever born to Smokey and his mate. The present Smokey, now in the National Zoo, is also from the Lincoln National Forest.

Upon his death in 1976, at the urging of his many friends, Smokey's body was returned to his beautiful and beloved Capitan Mountains. It is here he now rests in eternal peace, buried in a small park which bears his name; in the heart of the Village of Capitan and in the shadows of the mountains where it all began.

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