75 Years of Smokey: You may already know that Smokey Bear turned 75 on August 9th, but you might not know about his Great Lake’s area connection. The famous firefighting bear sparked to life during World War II in fear of fire attacks from the Japanese, which launched fire balloons and other methods that caused fires on the West Coast, so… “Smokey Bear was named after Smokey Joe Martin, a hero New York City firefighter who suffered burns and went blind during a 1922 rescue … on August 9th, 1944. The date, therefore is celebrated as Smokey’s birthday because that’s when the Forest Service ordered his creation. Artist Albert Staehle worked quickly and delivered a Smokey image on Aug. 10. (One of Albert’s illustrations from the U.S. Forest Service collections is seen here.)
For Baby Boomers, Smokey’s story is tied to the tale of a real-life burned bear cub, but that’s a later story version, it turns out, even though the cub was real.
So how does the Great Lakes region come into the story? In her story about playing Smokey Bear for the Wisconsin DNR, Catherine Koele reveals this history: “The Wisconsin DNR has some unique history with Smokey Bear. In 1950, the Firemen’s Convention Parade in Hurley, a town just north of Mercer, debuted a life-sized Smokey Bear statue mounted to a float decorated to look just like a 1948 Smokey poster with the quote: ‘… and please make people careful, amen.’
Wisconsin Conservation Department employees in Mercer loved seeing the amazement from children, which gave them the idea to create the very first Smokey Bear costume (seen in this photo). These original costumes were made of synthetic fur with battery-operated fans that circulated air in the ranger hat and had ice-filled ‘cool packs’ for the body. Today, the DNR manages more than 40 Smokey Bear costumes across the landscape, with still more owned and used by fire departments, the U.S. Forest Service and other partners of the agency. Smokey is a popular figure in public appearances statewide.”
This year, challenges between various state DNRs have resulted in witty and wonderful videos celebrating the bear’s long history. Michigan’s DNR produced “Wildfires are a Scary Thing” to the tune of Burning Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash’s song; Minnesota DNR came up with a story of Smokey and a ranger stopping a clueless drone operator who, while trying to video a great social media post, grounds a firefighting helicopter; and Wisconsin DNR’s birthday shoutout turns the Village People’s popular “YMCA” into F.I.R.E.