Montrose resident shares Smokey Bear memories

Lu Anne Tyrrell

Imagine having a childhood that includes a cherished memory of the time you got up close and personal with a national icon: the real live Smokey Bear. That’s the case for Pat Ewen.

Ewen, a retired teacher who has resided with her family in Montrose for 32 years, recently shared her memorabilia and memories of the legendary bear and his celebrity friends.

The Colorado native’s father, J. Morgan Smith, was employed by the U.S. Forest Service as district ranger stationed out of the Hot Sulphur Springs office. It was her father’s promotion to assistant director of the Forest Service’s fire prevention campaign that took his family to Washington, D.C., in 1948. It was a move that would introduce Ewen to Smokey.

The Smokey Bear fire prevention campaign has been in existence since the early ’40s. It was created to educate the public about the dangers of fire and importance of fire prevention. At that time, the message was primarily conveyed through posters and cartoons of a “spokesbear” depicted in a forest ranger-style campaign hat and blue jeans.

A new chapter in the campaign began after a devastating 1950 fire that burned more than 10,000 acres in New Mexico’s Lincoln National Forest. Out of the smoke and rubble came a little bear cub that firefighters spotted clinging to a tree, his paws and legs badly burned. The folks who rescued the cub knew just what they were going to call him.

“We now have a live Smokey Bear, let’s use him,” Ewen recalled her father saying.

With an actual bear affected by a real forest fire, Ewen’s dad went to work incorporating the cub and celebrities of the day into the fire prevention campaign. Upon recovering from the burns, Smokey was flown to Washington, D.C., and presented to the National Zoo as a living symbol of fire prevention.

As a cub, Smokey was known to make many escorted appearances with forest service officials and celebrities of the day such as actor William Boyd, who portrayed fictional Western hero Hopalong Cassidy. It was at one of those events that Ewen met the captivating cub.

“It was 1950, and we picked him up from the National Zoo with a cage that the zoo had loaned us to transport him to a circus appearance with Hopalong Cassidy,” Ewen said. “I sat in the back seat with him. He cried the all the way.”

With a desire to perpetuate Smokey’s legacy, Ewen presented photos and clippings of Smokey’s early days to the children attending last year’s Smokey the Bear Birthday Party event hosted by the Montrose Public Lands Center. “Having Pat present at the Smokey the Bear Birthday Party was the highlight of the event,” said Tammy Randall-Parker, the U.S. Forest Service’s Ouray District ranger.

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