Celebrating 75 years of preventing wildfires with Smokey Bear
What would a 75th birthday party be without some reminiscing?
Prior to events where people gathered to celebrate with Smokey Bear recently, two men shared their memories of the character and the real bear that instilled a desire to protect the forest in many young minds.
In mid-July, the Times Observer published an article about a man once known as “Mr. Smokey” — Andy Marfink. The article included excerpts from an interview of Marfink published on March 31, 1973. The article recognized Marfink for 50 years of saving forests.
After reading the article, Marfink’s son, Jack, reached out to express his appreciation and share a few memories. The jokingly self-proclaimed “Son of Smokey” then shared more than a few memories of life with his dad who fought forest fires and devoted much of his free time to spreading the message of fire prevention with his friend, Smokey Bear.
Back in the day, Jack accompanied his dad to various gatherings at volunteer fire departments including Sugar Grove, Russell, and others.
“They were mostly early evenings, usually with some type of potluck supper,” Marfink said. “He’d meet with the various families and men on the staff. For the first hour, it was mostly, for lack of better words, forest gossip.”
“They’d frequently discuss a recent fire and how it was covered,” he said.
Jack recalls conversations in which firemen expressed gratitude for a new pumper truck that his dad helped them get, but also wished for more bodies to help.
“Sometimes they’d reminisce about some large fire in the past and how for three days they’d eat, drink, and sleep smoke.”
Marfink always brought movies to the gatherings.
“He carried an old 16mm projector that I would frequently set up for him,” Marfink said.
Andy Marfink always brought the Hopalong Cassidy version of “The Story of Smokey,” and showed it first. That was “probably so the kids in the audience would settle down before his ‘feature films,’ which were often fire documentaries, logging histories…”
Jack can still recall, “even the adults would smile at the movie and join in, ‘With a ranger’s hat and shovel and a pair of dungarees…'” The opening lyric is part of the song “Smokey The Bear” written by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins, copyrighted in 1952.
Alan McCullough doesn’t remember singing along with the official song, but he has vivid memories of Andy Marfink and Smokey Bear coming to Youngsville Elementary School. His father was the principal at the school for many years.
“I do remember a lot of excitement when Andy and Smokey came out and it was a lot of fun,” McCullough said. “We met in the gym. All of us looked forward to when Smokey came.”
Smokey not only spent weekdays and evenings paying visits around the area. His weekends were busy also.
“On Saturdays, there were frequent events at places like Chapman Dam and Kinzua,” Jack Marfink said. “He’d give talks about forestry and praise the children and their families for doing everything they could to prevent forest fires.”
This was about the point that Jack — because he was Andy’s son — got an insider’s view of the action.
“I got to wear the outfit,” he said. “And let me tell you, in the summer, even in the Allegheny National Forest, it was hot!”
“Dressed as Smokey, I’d pass out flyers, balloons and other items,” Jack said. He rarely spoke but when he did it was the one-liner, “Remember kids, only you can prevent forest fires.”
Marfink said from second-hand reports, it seemed his father and Smokey were treated as celebrities on many of their visits. “He was always soft-spoken, never lectured, and conveyed his love of nature to everyone,” he recalled.
McCullough took his admiration of Smokey Bear to another level with a visit to the site that honors the real bear that started the legacy.
“A few years ago, I had the good fortune to travel to Capitan, New Mexico, to see the Smokey Bear Museum and Smokey’s final resting place,” McCullough said. “I have also driven through the mountains and was shown the approximate place where Smokey was found. It’s an interesting place to visit.”
In 1944, during World War II, the U.S. Forest Service decided to use a bear to spread the fire prevention message. They named him after a New York Assistant Fire Chief, “Smokey” Joe Martin.
On May 9, 1950, in the aftermath of a devastating fire in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico, a badly burned cub was found.
The cub recovered and lived at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington DC. He became the living symbol of fire prevention, Smokey Bear.
When Smokey grew old, plans were made for his retirement. The people of Capitan wanted their bear to be returned to his hometown. Upon his death in 1976, Smokey was flown home and buried in what is now Smokey Bear Historical Park.