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Hundreds celebrate Smokey Bear’s 75 years at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Collage of pictures from the Midewin Smokey Bear 75th celebration
Collage of successful fire safety day hosted by the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie’s visitor center. USDA Forest Service photo by Veronica Hinke.

ILLINOIS – On May 4, hundreds gathered, on foot, in classic cars, on bikes, on motorcycles and even horseback, at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington to celebrate Smokey Bear’s 75 years in fire safety and prevention.

Midewin, which is host to the only Interagency Hotshot Crew in the USDA Forest Service’s Eastern Region, hosted a fire safety day as part of the 13th annual IL Route 66 Red Carpet Corridor Festival – and Smokey Bear and his fire safety messages and legacy took center stage. Midewin joins in the Red Carpet Corridor festival as part of the activities in Wilmington, which is one of 13 towns along the 90-mile corridor, from Joliet to Towanda that collaboratively host mid-century festivities on the first Saturday in May. At Midewin, fire safety was the focus in this very special milestone year for Smokey Bear.

Engine trucks from fire departments in the City of Wilmington and the neighboring Village of Elwood were onsite. Fire staff gave tours of the trucks and talked with visitors. Dozens of people got to have their photo taken with Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl. People won Smokey Bear prizes in a game with questions about fire safety, Smokey Bear history and the role of prescribed burning in conservation.    Midewin staff and volunteers guided visitors on farm history and nature hikes to look for the Midewin bison herd, including calves that have been born so far this spring.

Along the trails, visitors were immersed in the sights and sounds of spring. A kaleidoscope of spring colors as Spring Beauties, Bluebells and more are in full bloom along the Farm History Trail just off the Iron Bridge Trailhead. In the Midewin Welcome Center, 19 replica portraits by USDA Forest Service Smokey Bear artist Rudolph Wendelin (1910 – 2000) and four original 16-mm Smokey Bear films from the 60s and 70s were shown. The prints and films were on loan from the U.S. National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland. Cupcakes decorated with candy fire flames were provided by the Midewin Interpretive Association.   

A special preview of the Wendelin prints and films was held on May 1 for Midewin volunteers. The award-winning Midewin Volunteer program is managed by The Nature Conservancy through a partnership agreement with the USDA Forest Service.