Remembering ‘Mr. Smokey’ Andy Marfink
As plans are being made to celebrate Smokey Bear’s 75th birthday, the occasion calls for more than cake and lots of candles. It calls for a recognition of a man who brought the bear into local classrooms, possibly for the first time — A man remembered as “Mr. Smokey.”
The USDA Forest Service/Allegheny National Forest is hosting a public birthday celebration from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 10, at the Kinzua Beach pavilion in celebration of the 75th birthday of Smokey Bear.
Some who attend the celebration may recall a time when kids lined up and cheered at the arrival of Mr. Smokey — Andy Marfink.
Marfink was the subject of an interview with the then Times Mirror and Observer published on March 31, 1973. The article recognized Marfink for 50 years of saving forests.
The article tells the story of a different time with many challenges. It also provides a glimpse into what motivated Mr. Smokey to devote much of his time to educating the next generation in fire prevention.
The original article was composed by Don Neal, an abridged version follows:
It took nothing more than a man in a Model T Ford roadster to determine the lifetime career of Andy Marfink. The man was H.B. Rowland, district forester, and the Ford was the type that had just reached national fame as the replacement for the horse and buggy on the “impassable and impossible” dirt roads of the time.
It was back in the month of April 1923 that the roadster pulled to a jolting halt in front of Andy’s Cherry Grove home and H.B., after gingerly cleaning his boots on the boot scraper, came up to knock on the door. His purpose, he explained to Andy, was to enlist him as a fire warden in an organization of wardens he was setting up throughout the Cornplanter district to battle the wild forest fires that swept over thousands of acres in the district during the dry spells of spring and fall.
According to plan, Andy would be responsible for enlisting the services of six or eight residents of his rural area as a crew and get them to the scene of a fire as quickly as possible. What was to be done with so few men when it came to controlling the fire would be up to Andy.
Forest fire fighting wasn’t anything new to Andy. He had already served on the crews of Forester Farnsworth before Rowland arrived on the scene, so he knew Rowland’s offer constituted more of a challenge than a means to make a living. You didn’t control the fires that raged through the widespread slashings left by the timber barons in those days, you simply worried them with a lot of back-breaking work until rain came to put them out or they burned themselves out with their own fury.
In spite of this, Andy was willing to tackle the task. He reminded Rowland that he wasn’t 21 yet and that according to law he was too young to assume the responsibility. Rowland said he had considered this and by the time Andy’s appointment was validated in Harrisburg, Andy would have reached his 21st year.
Then and there, Andy Marfink became a fire warden and started on the career that spanned 50 years of service.
Andy smiles when he thinks of the “good old days.” Imagine, he says, starting out to bring a fire under control that has already burned over a thousand acres, creating its own heat and wind, with a crew of six or eight men equipped with four rakes, one axe, one brush hook, a backfire torch and a backpack container that would hold no more than five gallons of water.
His efforts in those days was more to quell the fears of the rural residents than to save the burning brushpiles. No one, not even the state, thought the thousands of acres of slashed over land was worth saving or would ever have any future value. Only men like Andy Marfink could envision the day when they would once again be lush with second-growth forests.
Andy recalls that the first breakthrough toward actually fighting the fires came when the local lumber companies offered the services of their lumbering crews for duty on the fire lines. These men, often numbering 30 to 40, knew how to swing and axe and a brush hook in a manner that made the cutting of a fire line a less complicated matter. It was about this time, he remembers, that the slogan of the department was “no burn over 1,000 acres.”
Fires were plentiful in those days. Getting to some of the fires was as much a problem as fighting them. Hikes of three or four miles carrying the needed equipment were common, and often the water had to be brought to the fire by horse teams hauling 50-gallon drums.
The biggest fire Andy fought during this period was one that swept the vast acreage between the Farnsworth and Tionesta creeks. It burned more than 1,200 acres before the backfires checked it and it kept Andy on the fire line for three straight days, sleeping where he could and eating what he got.
Marfink — “Mr. Smokey” — was born in 1902. He died in 1987.