A friend of our forests for more than half a century
Smokey Bear lives in posters, billboards, stuffed toys, and a ton of fire-prevention information, as well as in the hearts of American schoolchildren. And for a time he lived in the National Zoo. But did you know that Smokey was born to help win a war?
During World War II, much wood was needed to build battleships and military transport crates. The government worried that fires could damage the forests that provided our timber. In response, the USDA Forest Service and the War Advertising Council launched a poster campaign that they hoped would help prevent forest fires.
Early posters featured Bambi, but the campaign soon switched to America's favorite toy animal—the bear. In 1944 illustrator Albert Staehle drew the first Smokey, a big-eyed, round-nosed bear in a park ranger's hat. The bear was named for "Smokey" Joe Martin, the former assistant chief of the New York City Fire Department.
The Real Smokey
Six years later a real bear brought a twist to the Smokey story. In May 1950, forest fires swept New Mexico's Capitan Mountains. Firefighting crews rescued a little black bear cub clinging to a tree. They called the burned baby "Hotfoot Teddy," but he was soon renamed "Smokey Bear" after the character in the poster.
Rest in Peace, Smokey
The real Smokey Bear died in 1976. His remains were sent home to Capitan, New Mexico, where they are buried in the Smokey Bear Historical Park. "Smokey II," an unrelated black bear, lived in the original Smokey's cage until his own death in 1990.
Smokey Bear became a celebrity. After being cared for by veterinarians in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he was moved to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Over the years many children came to visit the famous bear. Others wrote him letters—so many letters, in fact, that in 1964 he was given his own ZIP code.
In 1984 Smokey was honored with a postage stamp that pictured a baby bear hanging onto a burned tree.