Monday, 14 October 2019 18:39

Smokey gets re'fur'bished in Richmond County

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The 26-foot animatronic Smokey Bear was recently refurbished by N.C. Forest Service District Mechanic Dakota Moore and his team, along with Richmond County Airport Manager Jason Gainey. The 26-foot animatronic Smokey Bear was recently refurbished by N.C. Forest Service District Mechanic Dakota Moore and his team, along with Richmond County Airport Manager Jason Gainey. William R. Toler - Richmond Observer

ROCKINGHAM — For years, the 26-foot animatronic Smokey Bear belonging to the N.C. Forest Service has called Richmond County home.


When he’s not travelling the state to make appearances at festivals, he’s hibernating at the Richmond County Airport.

According to Airport Manager Jason Gainey, Smokey was originally pneumatically actuated and the 35-year-old bear had recently stopped working.

So Gainey and Dakota Moore, district mechanic for the N.C. Forest Service, got together and gave Smokey a makeover inside and out.

Moore and his team took out the pneumatic system and brought the giant bear over to the airport for storage, Gainey said.

“They wanted to make him electrical, so he (Moore) installed the electrical actuators,” Gainey said.

The original plan was to have Smokey programmed at N.C. State University, he added, “And I said, ‘I think we can do it here.”

So they put their heads together and developed the programmable logic controller “brain” of the bear to control the head, mouth and arm movements.

The “brain” sits in a trailer and rangers can control the movements by remote. Also in the trailer is a sound system and microphone where someone can play Smokey’s theme song, or talk to the audience.

Jason Gainey shows off the "brain" of the newly refurbished Smokey Bear.

Gainey said the next step is to get a wireless mic so the person operating the controls from outside can also be the voice.

“You guys are going to have to learn ventriloquism now, so you’re out here talking to the kids and Smokey talks back,” he jokingly told Moore.

Only one arm moves, slowly waving at the crowds below. The other holds a 16-foot shovel.

Last week, they assembled everything together, with Moore building the wiring mechanism.

They tested the system on Wednesday, did some fine tuning and by Friday, Smokey was fully operational — ready for a two-week stint at the N.C. State Fair starting Monday before coming back to Richmond County for the Seaboard Festival at the end of the month.

But it’s not just Smokey’s innards that are new.

“We’ve actually redone everything,” Moore said, from his ranger hat to his furry feet. “He’s 100 percent new again. Hopefully he’ll last another 35 years.”

Work began about seven months ago, according to Moore.

The bear is five pieces: his head, his arms, his torso and his legs.

The new fiberglass body was built by a pool manufacturer and the Umbrella Factory in Hamlet made the pants, Moore said. The only place they could find the 40 square yards of fabric for the fur was in Wisconsin.

Gainey said the hat blew off during transport and Moore and Matt Gordon had to rebuild it from scratch, using plywood.

“The county’s been extremely supportive,” Gainey said. “These guys pulled some money together and the county pretty much matched some funds on it.”

He said County Manger Bryan Land told him, “Do whatever you have to do to make this thing work.

“I think the kids in the county will really like it, too,” he added.

“It’s been a pretty good team effort to redo it,” Moore said.