After two full days spent exploring our national parks and monuments with many miles of driving, we kept the Thursday before leaving for Flagstaff ‘local.’ We used the day as a low-key rest day, but one with visits to the surrounding villages and their historic sites.
Smokey Bear Historical Park
Our first stop was to the town of Capitan. After a years of reading Hot Foot Teddy to the younger kids as a favorite bedtime book, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that the Smokey Bear Museum and Historical Park was so close to where we were staying in nearby Ruidoso. The Smokey Bear campaign began in 1944, six years prior to Smokey Bear being found. The living Smokey Bear, first known as Hot Foot Teddy, was found in the Lincoln National Forest following the Capitan Gap Fire in the spring of 1950. He was a three-month-old black bear cub found clinging to a tree, with burned paws. As the story became known nationwide, he became a celebrity and the living mascot for the forest fire prevention campaign. Smokey Bear recovered and eventually was moved to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. He lived a long bear-life and had many visitors. He was so popular and received so many letters, that the US Postal Service granted him his own zip code. After 26 years, Smokey Bear passed away peacefully in his sleep. His body was transported to Capitan, New Mexico quietly and by night to avoid publicity. He is buried in the historical park, and visitors today can come and visit Smokey’s gravesite.
The museum is in two parts. There is the original museum and gift shop, full of Smokey Bear campaign memorabilia. The newer portion of the museum, which leads out to the park features the birth of the Smokey Bear campaign, along with displays relating to wildfires and firefighting techniques. The surrounding historical park is serene and lovely, with chaparral plants and a stream. After visiting the museum, we walked outside to the park where the kids solemnly paid their respects to Smokey Bear.
Relatively close to Capitan is historic Fort Stanton. Built in 1855 to protect settlements during the Apache Wars, Fort Stanton has had a part in conflicts from the Civil War to World War II. It is said to have housed outlaws such as Billy the Kid, along with heroes such as the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Calvary. Fort Stanton was also used as a sanitarium and as a detention facility for Japanese and German- Americans during WWII. It also housed 410 German nationals taken from the ocean liner the SS Columbus in 1939. At that point, the U.S. was neutral. The nationals could not go home to Germany, and as the war was ramping up, they were eventually sent to Fort Stanton, New Mexico for its isolated location. For the next two years of their stay, they were given quite a bit of freedom. They were allowed to walk the grounds, make improvements to the site and even built a swimming pool and hosted diving competitions. This changed with the United States’ entry into the war, at which point curfews were enforced and much less freedom was given to the detainees.
Today, one can visit the now peaceful grounds and check out the officer quarters and barracks. Restoration is a work in progress; the barracks and Catholic Church are in pretty good condition, however, the Protestant chapel is showing its age, and the Commanding Officer’s quarters has rooms in various stages of restoration. It is a registered National Historic Site and is one worth visiting to learn about the history of the area and its role in the American story.
If you have more time, there is more to see in the area, such as the iris farms in Hondo and the historic town of Lincoln. We drove through Lincoln but didn’t spend much time in the town. There are a couple museums that could be of interest to those who enjoy Old West history, but I felt weren’t worth the cost given the mood of the family by that point. The kids and I were getting a bit antsy for lunch and it was time to head back. At the end of the day, the history buffs in the family were satiated, and I felt like I learned something new. I had no idea that this quiet part of New Mexico played such a role in the history of our nation. And I especially enjoyed visiting the Smokey Bear Museum.
Remember, only you can prevent wildfires. Happy trails!
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