GAINESVILLE — For years, Smokey Bear’s iconic hat was lost to history.
But thanks to a retired teacher doing some housecleaning and efforts of a local U.S. Forest Service officer, the wide-brimmed brown hat is now safely held at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
“It’s a really cool piece of history and related to the early days of Smokey Bear,” said Mike Davis of the Gainesville-based Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests.
The hat belonged to Harry Rossoll, an Atlanta artist who used it as a model for his Smokey Bear illustrations, elevating the bear’s popularity to cultural status. Even today, 70 years after Smokey Bear was created, the character famous for saying “Only you can prevent wildfires” still delights.
“We’re still amazed at the reaction we see from children and adults,” Davis said.
Rossoll’s illustrations, which appeared for decades in some 3,000 newspapers, made Smokey “the nation’s most recognized bear this side of Yogi,” states an article published by the Smithsonian.
Retired from the Forest Service in 1971, Rossoll also used the hat as a prop for fire prevention talks to schoolchildren.
One of those presentations took place sometime in the mid- to late 1970s at McLendon Elementary School in DeKalb County, according to a letter from Eve Darnall of Monroe.
“He was there as part of [the school’s] monthly cultural arts program for the first- through seventh-graders,” she wrote in a letter, “An Adventure of Smokey’s Hat,” that’s in Forest Service possession.
At the end of the program, a classroom teacher approached Rossoll and said she was doing a class play featuring Smokey and asked to borrow the hat.
“She assured him she would personally return the hat to him,” Darnall’s letter says.
However, “Years later, when she retired, she found the hat tucked away on a shelf in her classroom.”
Mortified, the teacher asked Darnall to try to return the hat to Rossoll or his family
“I made a couple of attempts, to no avail, and again it ended up stored,” Darnall said. “In my downsizing, the hat appeared again. I made a personal promise to myself [and Smokey] I would get his hat back to him.”
At this point, it was 2013 and Rossoll had died in 1999.
Darnall first approached the Georgia Forestry Commission, which then contacted the U.S. Forest Service in Gainesville, Davis said.
Davis said he met with Darnall last September.
“I was able to share more information about Mr. Rossoll and his work,” he said. “At this time, she donated the hat and letter to us requesting that we find a good home for it so others could enjoy it.
He said he researched Darnall’s account of the hat’s history “and it was obvious that [her story] was legit.
“Once we got it from her, we held onto it for a while and then began to look for opportunities for it, and it finally ended up where it’s at now.”
Jeffrey K. Stine, a curator at the museum, thanked Darnall in a Jan. 29 letter.
He said he appreciated her “conscientiousness in attempting to find an appropriate public repository” for the hat.
The museum didn’t hesitate to respond when the Forest Service asked if the Smithsonian was interested in acquiring the hat, Stine said.
“Naturally, we were thrilled to do so,” he said.