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Smokey Bear statue.
Smokey Bear statue.

Big Smokey Bear

Field review by the editors.

International Falls, Minnesota

The giant Smokey Bear in International Falls stands 26 feet tall and was unveiled on October 13, 1954, a little more than ten years after the original Bear was invented in World War II as a cartoon character -- to protect the nation's lumber resources from careless campfires. This bare-chested bruin wears his namesake Smokey Bear hat and blue jeans, holds his signature fire-fighting shovel, and and is flanked by two adorable cartoon bear cubs. He looks good for his age, even though vandals in the 1970s irreverently set fire to Smokey's butt.

In the middle of the summer it's hard to appreciate how cold it can get in International Falls. The self-proclaimed "Icebox of the Nation" lies on America's northern border, across from the chemically insensitive Canadian burg of Fort Francis. Canada has set up factories along this section of the Rainy River, spewing nonstop bad odors. Paper mills on the U.S. side are no better. No wonder they like it cold here; in the summer, the air is heavy with the smell of rotting wood.

Thermometer before dismantling.

International Falls erected a 22-foot high outdoor thermometer "as a tribute to the local climate," and visual proof of just how frigid it could get. The thermometer kept International Falls on the map, a PR darling referenced on postcards and countless TV weather reports. For a time it claimed to be tallest in the world, although the World's Tallest Thermometer is actually in Baker, California, a hot spot in the Mojave Desert.

So why is Smokey Bear in frozen International Falls? Well, this is a thickly forested logging area, evidenced by the giant piles of sawdust outside of town. There are many lovely fishing and sporting resorts beyond the sawdust piles, and a stray match in the dry season could end it all. Goodbye, National Icebox. Canada would have quite the show.

International Falls officially trademarked its "Icebox of the Nation" claim in 2008, after a frosty tussle with Fraser, Colorado, which had grabbed the title after International Falls let it lapse. International Falls, however, had proof that it had used the slogan as far back as 1948 -- almost as old as its Smokey Bear statue -- and won a judgment from the U.S. Trademark office.

Ironically, the big thermometer that leant substance to the claim is gone. It stopped working in 2002 -- too much cold weather, perhaps -- and was dismantled. And International Falls still has to deal with claims from another rival, the Coldest Spot in the Nation, which is in Montana.

But Smokey is still here, watching over the pulp mills and sawdust.

Also see: Smokey Bear's Grave

Big Smokey Bear

Smokey Bear Park

3rd St., International Falls, MN
Smokey Bear Park. North side of town, on the northwest corner of US hwy 71/3rd St. and 6th Ave.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Big Statue of Bronko NagurskiBig Statue of Bronko Nagurski, International Falls, MN - < 1 mi.
Fisherman StatueFisherman Statue, International Falls, MN - 2 mi.
Big Vic: Voyageur StatueBig Vic: Voyageur Statue, Ranier, MN - 3 mi.
In the region:
Lumberjack Statue, Bigfork, MN - 60 mi.

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