Located in Capitan, New Mexico the Smokey the Bear Museum is the perfect tribute to the ursine national fire preventionist. Smokey may be the world’s most famous bear (although Yogi might dissent). Smokey has been calling attention to the need for caution when making a campfire for over 75 years.
I was surprised to find out that Smokey the Bear the character had existed for a decade before there became a real-life Smokey. During the second world war, much of the rangers in the National Park Service were off fighting that there weren’t many men left to fight forest fires. The Forest Service determined that the only real way of preventing fires was to bring the public on board. An animated bear was chosen to spearhead a public education project. The phrase “Only you can prevent forest fires” was created in 1947 and became Smokey’s mantra ever since. (although the word “forest fires” was switched to “wildfires” in 2001 since fires can start in many natural environments, not just the forest) .
In 1950, Smokey became a living embodiment when an orphaned black bear cub was found badly burned and clinging to a charred tree. He was one of the only animal survivors of a devasting fire that burned much of the Capitan National Forest in New Mexico. The rangers had originally named him “Hotfoot” and a local ranger and his family offered to adopt him. As news spread of the bear’s rescue, he became a media sensation and he was renamed “Smokey”. Smokey was moved to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. where he lived until his death in 1976. During his lifetime he became a very popular symbol of wildfire prevention and received so much mail he actually needed his own zip code. His real name was just “Smokey Bear” but in the 1950s there was a hit song about his and the songwriter “The” between the two names and it just stuck.
After his death, Smokey’s body was interred near where he was originally found at Capitan, New Mexico and a small museum was build next to the gravesite. The museum admission is just two dollars and is worth a visit if you are traveling through. The museum also houses some of the gifts Smokey received from admirers as well as lots of Smokey memorabilia.