In the hours after tornadoes ripped through the community of Rolling Fork, Fred Miller, took stock of what needed to be rebuilt and repaired: the homes and businesses, the newly refurbished visitor’s center and its trove of artifacts, and the beloved restaurant, Chuck’s Dairy Bar.
But Mr. Miller, the former mayor of the town, was also thinking about the bears. Scattered across town were 12-foot-tall wooden bears, carved with chain saws, to commemorate one of Sharkey County’s most famous legends: the day former President Theodore Roosevelt, nicknamed Teddy, refused to kill a captured bear on a hunting trip here, declaring it unsportsmanlike. That decision, memorialized in a political cartoon, led a New York toymaker to create a stuffed bear and name it “Teddy’s Bear,” which later became known as the teddy bear.
The legend is told throughout town, Mr. Miller, 73, said in an interview, describing the statue of a bear reading outside the library and one dressed like a policeman outside the police station. In a tradition that began in 2002, the 100th anniversary of the hunt, the town celebrates the Great Delta Bear Affair in October, in part to raise awareness about the Louisiana black bear, which was until recently considered endangered because of habitat loss and hunting.
A new bear is carved each year, with the 2022 bear recently installed outside the visitor’s center, with a welcome sign. But as of Saturday, Mr. Miller said, “he’s laying on the ground now, and I don’t know if we’ll be able to put him back together or not.”
Bears around town “were all blown down, some of them destroyed last night,” he said of the sculptures, which he called “beautiful, unbelievable carvings.” With so much widespread destruction and so much need, he added, “I’m afraid it’s going be hard for us to get the momentum to build them back.”
Meg Cooper, the director of the festival, said though some of the town’s 18 bear statues had toppled over in the storm, someone had gone around and stood some of them up.
Before the tornado hit, festival organizers had been discussing where to put this year’s statue and had considered placing it in front of Chuck’s Dairy Bar — but that was demolished in the storm.
“It’s really unimaginable and hard,” she said about the choice now, amid all the damage around town. “I hope come October, everyone’s asking ‘Where’s the bear going?’”