President's Message

Nancy L. Hargroves

January 2019

NGC 2017-2019 President Nancy L. Hargroves

Dear Members,

The year 2019 is the 75th Anniversary of Smokey Bear’s creation. Often when something has been in existence for this long, we don’t remember all the details of how or why it was developed. I know I didn’t realize the original intent until I visited the Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan, New Mexico last fall. In all the years that I have been a member of a garden club, I have never known all of the history about Smokey Bear. I thought it was an ad campaign by the US Forest Service to help prevent forest fires/wildfires. I had no idea that there were two versions of Smokey – a drawing and a real bear.

In 1944, Smokey Bear was created as the symbol for the US Forest Service to ask American citizens to prevent wildfires in our forests, as the wood was needed for World War II efforts. This concern became very real in the spring of 1942 when Japanese submarines surfaced near the coast of Santa Barbara, California, and fired shells that exploded on an oil field, very close to the Los Padres National Forest. Fear grew that shells exploding in the forests of the Pacific Coast would ignite numerous raging wildfires. Communities had to deal with wildfires, as the men and experienced firefighters were deployed in the war. Protection of forests became a matter of national importance. The idea was formulated that if people could be urged to be more careful, perhaps some of the fires could be prevented.

Initially, Smokey was an artist’s conception – a drawing for a public information campaign. On August 9, 1944, the creation of Smokey Bear was authorized by the Forest Service; and the first poster was delivered on October 10 by artist Albert Staehle. The poster, shown on the right, depicted a bear pouring a bucket of water on a campfire.

In the spring of 1950, there was a major wildfire in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. As the crews battled to contain the blaze, they received a report of a lone bear cub seen wandering near the fire line. They hoped that the mother bear would return for him. Soon, about 30 of the firefighters were caught directly in the path of the firestorm and survived by lying face down on a rockslide for over an hour as the fire burned past them.

Nearby, the little cub had taken refuge in a tree that became completely charred, escaping with his life but also badly burned paws and hind legs. The crew removed the cub from the tree, and a rancher among the crew agreed to take him home. A New Mexico Department of Game and Fish ranger heard about the cub when he returned to the fire camp. He drove to the rancher’s home to help get the cub on a plane to Santa Fe, where his burns were treated and bandaged.

News about the little bear spread swiftly througout New Mexico. Soon, the United Press and Associated Press broadcast his story nationwide, and many people wrote and called, asking about the cub’s recovery. The state game warden wrote to the chief of the Forest Service, offering to present the cub to the agency as long as the cub would be dedicated to a conservation and wildfire prevention publicity program. The cub was soon on his way to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., becoming the living symbol of Smokey Bear.

He received so many letters that he had to have his own zip code. He remained at the zoo until his death in 1976, when he was returned to his home to be buried at the Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan, New Mexico, where he continues to be a wildfire prevention legend.

As a garden club member, you probably know who Smokey the Bear is. Have you ever stopped to consider if the youth that you are encouraging to enter the Smokey Bear Poster Contest know who he is, or know what he stands for or lives near a forest? There isn’t a video game to teach them. The complete history of Smokey is on the Smokey Bear website:

Whether or not your club participates in the Smokey Bear Poster Contest, a discussion about Smokey can lead to many topics: US history, wildfire prevention, conservation, and the environment. Smokey himself was created to meet a need during a major war in our country’s history. The topic of preventing wildfires is still very relevant to discuss with youth. The devasting wildfires in California in November 2018 were the leading stories in the national news. Not only was this event an opportunity to talk about how people can cause a wildfire but also an opportunity to talk about conserving our natural resources, environmental concerns of water issues and meteorological/temperature changes of our planet that affect these natural disasters now and in the future.

Congratulations, Smokey! You’re still relevant 75 years later.

Nancy L. Hargroves
President 2017-2019
National Garden Clubs, Inc.