One Tank Trip: Smokey Bear at Reading Public Museum


He had claws and a stern face, the first images of Smokey Bear. As the years went on, the claws disappeared, so did the paws. They were replaced with fingers. Smokey was smiling and his name was on his hat and belt buckle.

It's the work of Kansas-born artist Rudy Wendelin. There were a lot of artists, and still are, who drew Smokey. Rudy is best-known for humanizing him. He was his caretaker for more than 30 years, the protector of the Smokey image.

"Wendelin famously said that he always felt like Smokey was down the hall, sort of watching over everything he did," said Scott Schweigert, curator of the Reading Public Museum.

In the beginning, Smokey was part of the war effort, created in the early 40s after a Japanese submarine surfaced and fired shells near a national forest. The U.S. government feared those we were battling would start forest fires, so they came up with a campaign to combat them, a catchy one.

"There's sort of a collective memory from Smokey from either when we were kids, or boy or girl scouts, or seeing his image on TV," said Schweigert. "His image is just sort of ubiquitous around the U.S. for years. for decades."

You can see his evolution in an exhibit at the museum through the end of August.

In 1950, the U.S. Forest Service found a real-life version of Smokey, a cub rescued from a forest fire in New Mexico. He was flown in his own plane to live out the rest of his life at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.

There were Smokey dolls, Oscar-like awards known as the "Smokies," napkins for kids' birthday parties.

In 1964, Smokey was awarded his own ZIP code so you could write to him, and you still can. You can also follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

But even an image so well known has had some identity issues. Is it Smokey Bear or does Smokey THE Bear sound right to you? Even though we like to give him one, Smokey has never had a middle name, and it's a song that created the confusion. It was released in 1952. The "THE" was added so the lyrics would work with the melody. It's a song still used by rangers.

"So that's a common misnomer," Schweigert said, "but it truly is just Smokey Bear, with no middle name."