The Story Of Smokey Bear And His Collectibles

Smokey Bear is more than a fictional or cartoon character. He actually lived. Here is how he was rescued from a forest fire and became the living symbol of forest fire safety.

The little town of Capitan, New Mexico is like many New Mexico towns: a sleepy little town with beautiful mountain scenery and a mixture of adobe and wood frame houses. Not much to distinguish it from dozens of other small towns in the state. But there is one difference. It is the birthplace of Smokey Bear.

My wife and I drove through Capitan looking for information about the famous bear. It was easily found. There beside the main street was an unimposing building that sported a large sign saying, "Smokey Bear Historical Park."

We parked and entered the modern structure, signed in for our visit, and immediately began viewing displays about Smokey and the U.S. Forest Service. We saw pictures of Smokey as a tiny cub and as a mature bear. We listened to stories about how the bear cub was rescued following a nearby forest fire.

You see, Smokey Bear was more than a fictional character, more than a poster drawing. Smokey Bear was a real bear living in a real forest during a real forest fire!

It started in 1944, when the US Forest Service first adopted a symbol for fire safety. After considering a deer and other animals, the service decided on a black bear and named him Smokey. At that time he was a fictional character. Posters showing him pouring water on a campfire soon became popular.

Then in the spring of 1950, the U.S. Forest Service battled a forest fire on Capitan Mountain in New Mexico. On May 9th, after the fire had been extinguished and the ashes were cooled enough for the firefighters to move through the area, they made a startling discovery. A bear cub was found clinging to a burned tree!



The little bear's paws had been severely burned. The fire fighters didn't know what to do with him, but a rancher, who had helped put out the fire, took the cub home with him. A ranger with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish heard about the cub and drove to the rancher's home to get the bear. The cub was in need of veterinary treatment. The ranger flew the cub to Santa Fe where his burns were treated.

Later he was returned to Capitan where Warden Ray Bell and his family cared for him.

News about him spread swiftly. Pictures of the injured cub with Judy Bell, the warden's little daughter, caught the imagination of the nation. People were anxious for news about his progress.

After the cub was healed, the State Game Warden offered him to the U.S. Forest Service with the understanding that he would be dedicated to the publicity program for forest fire safety. The service accepted him and placed him in the National Zoo at Washington, DC, where he lived for twenty-six years as the living symbol of Smokey. His fans came from all over the nation and the world to see the amazing bear that had survived a forest fire. Smokey Bear was famous.

After his death, his body was taken back to Capitan and buried in a grave in what became the Smokey Bear Historical Park.

After we had heard all about Smokey and his amazing life, we left the building and explored the grounds. It truly is a beautiful park, displaying various plants indigenous to the mountain area.

We roamed slowly through the park enjoying the beautiful day and the mountain scenery. Then as we wandered on around the walkways we found the grave of Smokey Bear. We had to stop and think of all we had learned about Smokey and how his name had made people everywhere aware that forest fires are dangerous and often can be prevented.

Today Smokey Bear is known throughout the nation and the world. Tourist shops and many other stores display all kinds of curios related to the famous bear. Campgrounds are named for him. The internet displays a number of sites where people interested in his story can buy Smokey Bear collectibles, some expensive, some not so expensive.

Smokey Bear has become a true collectible item. Everything from Smokey Bear tee-shirts to plates, stamps and bookends are available and eagerly sought by collectors.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service still promotes fire safety with his picture. Today, he's still telling us, "Only you can prevent forest fires."

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