While my husband, Bob and I were in the Black Hills last week, we were having breakfast at the Hill City Cafe, when we overheard a waitress telling another table the story of how the Hill City High School came to have Smokey Bear as their mascot and be renamed the Hill City Rangers. I had no idea that anyone used Smokey Bear as their mascot, nor did I know that no other school was allowed to do so. That caught my interest, so we listened to the story, and then I had to research it further to get the whole story. And quite a story it is.
It all started around noon on July 10, 1939, with one of the worst forest fires in the history of the Black Hills. It was located just ten miles northwest of Hill City, and that’s too close for any wildfire to be to a city. Overnight, the fire burned through six of those ten miles, jumped the Mystic Road, the C.B. and Q. Railway, and was headed directly for Hill City. These are areas my husband, Bob and I have hiked, and hearing about the fire raging through them really hits home for me. The C.B. and Q Railway (Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad) was later abandoned and became the Mickelson Trail, which I have hiked from end to end, twice!! Not in one trip, but over about 10 years, one section at a time. The whole area is a place I love, and to think of it burning…well, it tears at my heart.
By noon on July 11, 1939, the fire was within three miles of town. That was when the wind changed and carried the fire further North and East. Still, Hill City and other towns were not safe, winds shift all the time, and the fire had to be stopped. The weather that year had been hot and very dry, unlike this year, plus a high wind repeatedly “crowned” the fire. The firefighters were in constant danger. They had already called in all of the Civilian Conservation Corps boys in the area, who had been immediately put on the fire, and now the forest rangers called for more help. You know that the situation is desperate, when they call for untrained volunteers. Shockingly, one of the first crews to respond was a group of 25 schoolboys from Hill City. These were high school kids…kids!! The crew of 25 included the entire basketball squad, one eighth grader, and several boys who had recently attended or graduated from the Hill City High School. Their foreman was Charles Hare, President of the Board of Education. This whole story of bravery and selflessness brings tears to my eyes and puts a lump in my throat.
The inferno raged throughout July 11th and into July 12th and utilized over four thousand firefighters, laboring together to bring the fire under control. The fire often isolated the crews, who went without food and water for a number of hours. Heat, smoke, and the danger of being trapped hampered the firefighters, but the blaze was brought under control on July 12th. The people of Hill City had spent many anxious hours watching the smoke and direction of the fire. Many had packed their belongings and were ready to move, but the order to abandon the town was never given. The schoolboys crew from Hill City was at the fire every day. The US Forest Service was so grateful to them that they were later recognized by officials as one of the best crews!! The McVey Fire burned over 20,000 acres.
To get back to the story the waitress was so proudly telling, “The name ‘Rangers’ was given to them in honor of their good record. Because of the work of these schoolboys back in 1939, Hill City Schools became the ONLY school district in the United States to have the privilege of using ‘Smokey Bear’ as its mascot. The school colors are Green and Gold which also represent the National Forest Service Theme, and Hill City is the ONLY school with the honorable privilege of having their graduation ceremonies held at Mount Rushmore. The staff, students and teams representing Hill City Schools hope to continue the traditions of the splendid group of men that our boys so ably assisted, The United States Forest Rangers.” It’s a proud tradition to own, and an awesome goal to reach for. I’m sure they will be able to achieve their goal, and as an annual “tourist” in the area, who loves the Black Hills, I want to thank all the brave firefighters in the Black Hills-Hill City area…past, present, and future (one of which was my niece, Lindsay Moore, for a summer) for all their hard work keeping the area safe, and mostly for their bravery.