Every school age child has heard of Smokey Bear, but they may not know that Capitan, New Mexico, is his birthplace. In the aftermath of a disastrous fire in the Capitan Mountains, a four pound black bear was found on May 19, 1950, clinging to the trunk of a burned tree. The rangers named him Smokey. Ultimately he was taken to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. and in June, 1950, he became the living symbol of Smokey Bear.
Smokey died in 1976 and he was returned to Capitan and buried at Smokey Bear Historical Park. The visitor's center includes exhibits about forest fires, a history of the fire prevention campaign and a theater. There are also educational computer games on fire prevention.
The village of Capitan, at an elevation of 6,350 feet on U.S. Highway 380, is home to 1400 people. Located between two mountain ranges, the Sacramento and the Capitan, the average rainfall is 15.7 inches, average winter temperature 36 degrees, and summer average is 68 degrees.
Seaborn T. Gray homesteaded there in 1884, and the town was known as Gray until 1900 when it was renamed Capitan. The El Paso and Northeastern Railroad built a coal line from Carrizozo to the Phelps-Dodge coal mines, one mile west of Capitan. By 1905 the coal mines had played out and were abandoned. Ranching, fishing and hunting are the economic bases now.
Many artisans have found Capitan an ideal place to live. There are weavers, jewelers, potters, creators of leather items, furniture makers, painters and photographers. Twice yearly, in June and December, there is an Art Loop Tour of the studios of all these artists. There are also several antique shops. One known as The Angel Tree Exchange specializes in Victorian angels.
Retirees are discovering Capitan's mild winters and beautiful scenery. Their arrival has made this town the third fastest-growing community in New Mexico.
The resort area of Ruidoso, with skiing in the winter, horse racing in the summer, and the Museum of the Horse, is only 21 miles away on State Highway 48. The historic town of Lincoln where the infamous Billy the Kid make his last excape is only 12 miles east on U. S. Highway 380.