Midewin celebrates 75 years of Smokey Bear

75 years of
Smokey Bear and
and his
fire safety message
on Saturday May 4,
from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

For one day only, Rudolph Wendelin Smokey Bear portraits and 16 mm Smokey Bear films from the USDA National Agricultural Library will be shown to the public at the USDA Forest Service – Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie!

Fans can help Midewin celebrate 75 years of Smokey Bear and his fire safety message on Saturday May 4, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Step back into mid-century America with us as we look at Smokey Bear and his fire prevention messages through the years. Immerse yourself in the sights and scenes of a by-gone era when America was only just first experiencing Route 66 and Smokey Bear. Recreation meant wheels-on-the-road for many American families, and Smokey Bear – and his timeless fire safety message, “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires,” – was right there with them. Smokey Bear was visible on everything from buttons and posters to towels, sheets, dishes and more!

Smokey Bear’s modern-day message – “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires” – is as important to fire safety now as his first message was back in 1944 when the USDA Forest Service and the Ad Council inaugurated the first-of-its-kind public service outreach.

The message at the top of the very first Smokey Bear poster read “Smokey says: Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires.” In the scene below the words, Smokey Bear pours water over a fire. The poster was released to the public on August 9, 1943 – and Smokey Bear was officially launched as a national fire safety spokesperson. Smokey Bear’s birthday has been celebrated on August 9 ever since.

Midewin will celebrate Smokey Bear’s 75th birthday throughout the season – kicking off on May 4th with this very special retrospect of Smokey Bear in film and art.


WELCOME CENTER See 19 prints by artist Rudolph Wendelin. In 1944, Wendelin, a USDA Forest Service employee, became the official artist of smokey bear. The prints span the Wendelin years from 1979 (“Smokey’s Fan Mail”) to 1996 (“High Five for Fire Protection”). 16 mm Smokey Bear films from the 1960s and 1970s will also be shown. The prints and films will be on loan from the USDA National Agricultural Library in the Washington, D.C. area. The films will be shown on a 16 mm film projector on loan from the Chicago Film Archives.

IRON BRIDGE TRAILHEAD Get your photo with Smokey Bear and his friend Woodsy Owl! Mingle with conservation specialists with government and non-profit groups who will be here for our annual Natural Resources Expo. Walk and learn on a Farm History Hike or on a Nature Hike. Hikes will leave from the Ranger Trailer throughout the day. Stroll through an array of vintage Smokey Bear posters. Enjoy fire prevention coloring and other activities for children. Look for the Midewin bison.

WAUPONSEE TRAILHEAD Talk with Midewin Visitor Information Assistants, pick up maps and brochures for the new season – and try your hand on the spin-to-win Conservation Wheel. Better brush up first on your Smokey Bear facts: For this one special day only, questions will be about Smokey Bear and fire safety. The Wauponsee Trailhead is located South of Manhattan. It connects the Wauponsee Glacial Trail to the Midewin trail system. To reach this trailhead from Hwy. 53, go east on Hoff Road.

The Midewin Smokey Bear retrospect will be part of the community-wide 13th annual Illinois Route 66 Red Carpet Corridor Festival. Midewin will be a pick-up point where you can get your Red Carpet Corridor Passport and collectible Smokey Bear 75th birthday magnets and buttons.

Smokey Bear was a real bear. When a wildfire broke out in 1950 in the Capitan Mountains in New Mexico, a lone, tiny bear cub was spotted by responders. The helpless little bear cub had tried desperately to save himself by inching up the charred tree. His paws were burned.

A rancher from New Mexico was with the team that rescued the baby bear, and he offered to take him home to help nurse him back to health. A New Mexico Department of Game and Fish ranger heard about the cub and arranged for him to get to Santa Fe to get his wounds treated. The game warden with the State of New Mexico contacted the chief of the USDA Forest Service, and worked with the USFS to help the little bear cub become a spokesman in conservation and wildfire outreach. From his new home at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., the cub became the actual living symbol of Smokey Bear.

The United Press and Associated Press quickly got the story out to all about the recovering and inspiring bear cub, and the little fighter became the center of attention in every corner of the United States. The real Smokey Bear recovered and ended up receiving so many letters – and even pots full of honey – that he got his very own zip code – 20252.

The real Smokey Bear lived until 1976. He is buried at the Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan, New Mexico.

The 1984 Wendelin portrait above, “Hurry Up, Here They Come,” shows Smokey Bear scurrying to finish putting up signs as visitors arrive! We know the feeling: Volunteers, partners and staff with the USDA Forest Service Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie are putting on the finishing touches to be ready for the summer season. The Smokey Bear retrospect event officially kicks off the 2019 season!

Click here for the 2019 Tours & Programs Guide.