Although some people may still be full from Thanksgiving, the new National Museum of Forest Service History kicked off the holiday season early with an old-fashioned Christmas party, complete with Santa and his pack mules, Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl.

The museum, which opened its visitor center and interpretive trail west of the airport this summer, treated both future and former forest rangers like Bridger Gaudry, 6, and Jack Puckett, 90, to campfire songs, a candy cane hunt and hot cocoa.

Tom Petersen, development director at the museum, said the museum was working to fulfill the first Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot’s mantra of serving “the greatest good,” by providing a community resource for education and telling the whole story.

“It’s not always an easy story to tell,” Petersen said. “There’s been plenty of controversies in the Forest Service, so we want to tell the whole story, not just a big success story. It’s not just celebration, but also education.”

Neal Lewing of the Port Polson Players brought a live show of period American folk music interspersed with stories that carried listeners around the campfire ring to the times of Theodore Roosevelt, the founding of the Forest Service and a history of the conservationist movement.

Renowned backcountry mule-packer Smoke Elser brought along two of his mules, Tess and Cody, to aid in his role as Santa. A long line of kids and adults alike waited their turn for a picture with old St. Nick, Smokey and Woodsy.

Elser, widely known for his expertise in packing into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, has trained U.S. Forest Service employees to properly pack mules since 1980. Vehicles and machinery are banned from designated wilderness areas, so the Forest Service still uses pack mules to this day.

The seemingly endless supply of cookies for the event were baked by the Triangle Club, which is made up of retired women from the Forest Service, education director Cheryl Hughes said. The women also donated antique Christmas ornaments so the museum “could really dress this place up old-fashioned.”

Executive director Lisa Tate said the museum is about halfway to its $10.6 million goal needed to build the planned National Conservation Legacy & Education Center on the 36-acre site. The museum is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and does not receive funding from the Forest Service or federal government, although its board of directors is largely made up of retired U.S. Forest Service employees.

The museum has collected around 50,000 artifacts, Tate said, ranging from documents and photos to full ranger station buildings. The visitor center now housed in one of the donated cabins will be restored to its original interior once the education center is built. She said the museum directors hope to successfully apply to be a Smithsonian-affiliated exhibit as the “only museum celebrating the legacy of conservation.”

Until then, the museum plans to build a “story stage” amphitheater next year to host lectures and help tell the stories of the legends of conservation.

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