If you have driven through Catawba Heights recently and seen a 20-foot bear waving at you, don't panic – it has nothing to do with your medication.
That bear is our old friend Smokey Bear, who is hanging out at the home of longtime Mount Holly resident Bob Connell. Connell is refurbishing the giant bear, getting him ready for upcoming appearances.
Although Smokey officially resides in Raleigh (and is the property of the N.C. Forest Service), he spends a fair amount of time in Mount Holly, because Connell is his caretaker and groomer.
Connell says he became the N.C. Smokey's fix-it man some time ago at the request of his son-in-law, Hugh Frazer, who once worked for the state Forest Service.
The 1,200-pound-plus bear, first built in 1983, is made of styrofoam and fiberglass and covered with fur. The huge blue jeans he wears were made by inmates at Raleigh's Central Prison.
While Smokey originally was stationary, a few years ago the state forest service decided to animate him. For that, Connell, with the help of his son Rick and others, took the giant bear apart. They gave him the ability to move his head and mouth, to “talk,” and to wave his right arm. According to Connell, the bear's motions are controlled by pneumatics (compressed air).
Connell says that Smokey is a big hit at appearances, especially with the kids, and the giant bear sometimes draws some interesting reactions from people.
“Once, an elderly gentleman was startled when the bear began to talk, and walked up to Smokey, saying ‘Bears don't talk!,'” Connell said.
People passing by do doubletakes upon seeing the bear in his yard on N.C. 273, Connell said. “People often pull in the driveway to take pictures, especially with their kids,” he said.
The bear's main function is to teach people, especially kids, about fire safety.
Smokey also recently appeared at The Schiele Museum as well as the Boy Scout Camporee in Stanley. In 2001, Smokey appeared at the National Boy Scout Jamboree just outside of Washington, D.C. He travels to his various gigs on a custom-built trailer.
By law, Congress owns the rights to Smokey Bear, and nothing about his appearance can be changed without its permission – something Connell knows personally.
“For his appearance at the Scout Jamboree, we wrote (U.S. Rep.) Sue Myrick about putting a (Boy Scout) neckerchief on Smokey, and she wrote back stating that under no circumstances could we change the appearance of Smokey the Bear,” Connell said.
This week, Smokey will travel to Fletcher for the N.C. Mountain Fair, and in October he will appear at the N.C. State Fair in Raleigh.