International Falls votes to no longer dress up its famous Smokey Bear statue

Smokey Bear
A 26-foot tall statue of Smokey Bear occupies the center of Smokey Bear Park early in the morning Wednesday, September 25, 2013 in International Falls, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

The 26-foot-tall Smokey Bear statue that stands tall over the city of International Falls will no longer don earmuffs in the winter, or fishing gear in the summer.

The city council voted unanimously last week to prohibit dressing the iconic figure in any garb other than his traditional blue jeans, belt, buckle and “campaign” hat, with his shovel in hand.

For several decades International Falls residents have dressed Smokey in different outfits depending on the season, starting in the 1980s, when locals knit a 25-foot-long scarf and created giant mittens and earmuffs.

But Mayor Harley Droba said he reached out to other Minnesota communities that are also home to famous giant statues — including Paul Bunyan and Babe in Bemidji, Big Ole the Viking in Alexandria, and the Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth — who told him “they thought it was kind of crazy” that International Falls decorated its famous fiberglass monument.

“This is what you want to be known for is having this thing, and to allow people to put up anything on him, even with council permission, is just ridiculous to them,” Droba said at last week’s council meeting.

There’s also the risk of damaging the statue — the city recently spent $30,000 restoring the Smokey statue, which was originally built in 1954, Droba said.

Council member Mike Holden said he felt caught in the middle. He’s helped to decorate Smokey since the mid-80s, “and kind of enjoyed it, really,” he said.

But Holden also said that his father worked for the Minnesota state forestry division for 36 years. “And Smokey the Bear was a big deal in our family,” he said.

The U.S. Forest Service has issued guidelines for groups that are authorized to use Smokey’s likeness, to ensure that he will continue to be a “powerful icon” of fire prevention for years to come.

Smokey Bear
A Smokey Bear sign stands in northern Minnesota.
Dan Kraker | MPR News 2019

“There’s a reason for that,” Holden said. “They don't want the importance of Smokey the Bear to be degraded.”

The council voted 4-0 to prohibit dressing the Smokey Bear statue. That means that even in the dead of winter, in the self-proclaimed “Icebox of the Nation,” Smokey will remain shirtless.

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