What started as a one-time event has become a tradition that brings families back to Belleplain State Forest every Labor Day weekend - the celebration of Smokey Bear's birthday. The beloved mascot of the forest makes an appearance at a huge party in his honor, while children and adults alike win prizes for participating in a coloring contest held throughout the day.

Smokey Bear is a large bear who wears blue jeans. A belt holds Smokey Bear's pants up, but he doesn't wear a shirt. He carries a shovel and wears a wide-brimmed hat like those worn by forest rangers.

Tom Champion, of Belleplain, has been working at Smokey's party at Belleplain State Forest since it began at in 1980. He has been a seasonal employee at Belleplain State Forest for 49 years and is now a visitor service assistant.

"In 1980, our superintendent came up with the idea to celebrate Smokey's birthday, and it just caught on," Champion said. "We decided to make it an annual event. We get about 125 people, kids and adults, who participate in the coloring contest and for the evening party, about 200 people attend. We have birthday cake and ice cream and give out awards for the coloring contest winners. Prizes are Smokey Bear stuffed bears, baseballs, badges, banks. Every participant gets a goodie bag filled with Smokey memorabilia."

The first Smokey Bear poster came out Aug. 9, 1944. It showed the bear pouring water from a bucket to put out a smoldering camp fire in a forest. In the 1940s and 1950s, Smokey Bear was featured in radio commercials that were narrated by celebrities including Art Linkletter and Bing Crosby. Since the 1960s, Smokey Bear has been in several television commercials.

In 1952, the United States Congress made the Smokey Bear brand the property of the Department of Agriculture. The official Smokey Bear website is designed with children in mind. Visitors can watch the commercials, sign a pledge to help Smokey Bear prevent forest fires, and read all about Smokey Bear. They can even see the lyrics and tune for the song that mixed everyone up about Smokey Bear's non-existent middle name. The song, by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins, written in 1952, is called "Smokey The Bear." The composers added the "the" to make the lyrics fit the rhythm.

A real bear cub burned in Captain Gap fire in New Mexico in 1950 was nursed back to health and named Smokey. He eventually came to live at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., becoming the official mascot. The original Smokey died in 1976. Another bear took his place as Smokey until his death in 1990.

Champion has an extensive collection of Smokey items he has on display at the forest office, including a limited edition 50th anniversary stuffed Smokey. Adults entered the coloring contest in the hopes of winning a drawing for a wooden Smokey Bear, a collector's item. Children also got to color iron-on patches and have them ironed onto T-shirts.

Smokey also posed for many pictures. Champion said the party is funded by the employees of the park, who buy the candy bars and water he sells in order to buy the prizes, which this year totaled $600. Sponsors donate the birthday cakes.

"About the only thing that has changed about Smokey is his slogan," Champion said. "I don't know when it changed, but it used to be 'Only you can prevent forest fires.' Now it is 'Only you can prevent wild fires.' I guess it is to reach more people."

Bob and Nancy Homan, of Gibbstown, have been coming to Belleplain for 18 years, first bringing their six children, and now their grandchildren.

"I remember Smokey from when I was a kid," Bob Homan said. "I think the original Smokey was alive when I was a kid. We enjoy coming here, meeting nice people, seeing old friends. Most families come back year after year, so we become like a big family."

Nancy Homan said she loves Champion's passion about the forest.

"He just loves children and has such passion for what he does," she said. "We just feel so comfortable here. I won the coloring contest one year. I entered because my kids did. Bob will color for the whole time allowed and he wins a lot. My son, B.J.'s, birthday is Sept. 1 so he shares that with Smokey."

Kathleen Meyer, a visitor service assistant at the forest, handled the iron-on T-shirts. She has been helping at the party since 1994.

"What I love is working with the kids who then come back as adults with their kids and so on," Meyer said.

"Smokey just gets the message out for people about fire prevention and the importance of state and national forests. He is really well-loved by all."

Contact Debra Rech:

609-463-6719