Everyone knows Smokey Bear, Woodsy Owl, and maybe even Ranger Rick Raccoon, but there are many other forest and forestry-related fictional characters that long ago fell by the wayside. Peeling Back the Bark‘s series on “Forgotten Characters from Forest History” continues here with Part 3 in which we examine the life and tragically short career of Johnny Horizon.
He came from out of the West. He was a loner who brought the people together. With their help, he said, together they could clean up their towns and farms. “Do-gooder,” they called him. “Square-jawed,” they said. Troubadours traveled the countryside, singing about how a folk hero walked among them. Hearing his story changed the people’s lives. Rural folk and urban kids, hippies and businessmen, even the president—they all did as he asked. As his fame and power spread, the government grew nervous. Then one day the suits in Washington said they’d had enough. They’d created him, they could silence him. They ordered him “phased out.” To this day, he is still honored in the one state that loves its forest history characters more than any other. He was Johnny Horizon. And his legend lives on.
It was the late 1960s. The environmental movement was in full swing. Trash and water and air pollution had become major concerns for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Johnny Horizon arrived on the scene in 1968. His message was simple: It’s your land, it’s my land — Keep it clean! It was just what the BLM wanted to hear. They’d been the brunt of jokes for years, ridiculed as the Bureau of Livestock and Mining. The BLM needed help to clean up their image and clean up their lands. Johnny was the man for both.
Johnny had it all going for him. He was Hollywood handsome, “a tall, lean man with strong facial features, who wears slacks and sport shirt buttoned to the collar (both green, when colored), no tie, a field jacket (red, when colored), boot-type shoes (brown, when colored) and who carries a backpack.” His message was as disarming as his good looks: Clean up America for its 200th birthday. Who could argue with that?
At first the bureaucrats at the BLM were smitten. They hired the handsome stranger as their anti-litter symbol and spokesman. Johnny was an instant hit. A television appearance sparked 23,000 letters in one month from fans promising to reduce litter on public lands. Others signed pledge cards saying they’d do the same. He became bigger than anyone had ever imagined. Somewhere a talking bear was shaking in his blue jeans.
Hollywood stars flocked to him right away like moths to a flame. Celebrities like Cicely Tyson and Glen Campbell recorded TV and radio spots for him. Johnny Carson’s sidekick Ed McMahon, British folk group The New Seekers, and baseball greats Bobby Mercer and Elston Howard also recorded announcements. Comics like Red Buttons and Carol Burnett joined in.
Folk singer and actor Burl Ives quickly teamed up with Johnny and the Department of the Interior to help spread his message. In a press conference in 1970, Ives promised to “get 200 million Americans aware of and caring for their environment.” Within a few years’ time, “countryside clean-ups” had spread to 40 states and 300,000 people were volunteering their time. Ives even commissioned songs to help spread the message. Together with singer Randy Sparks and the New Canaan Singers, he toured the country and gave free concerts—18 in all—while literally singing Johnny’s praises. And spreading his radical message that the people take care of their land.
One song invoked the names of the Founding Fathers and made a direct appeal to “the rangers and the Wolf Cubs and the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts” … “to help keep America clean.” Johnny was winning the hearts and minds of the kids. They could get free bumper stickers and buttons with Johnny’s message. They could buy t-shirts and watches and belts with his face on it. He even showed up on the popular kids’ cartoon “Fat Albert.” (more…)