A Boy at Heart and His Bear

Hugh Morton could be regarded as a patriarch of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He touched so many lives as an accomplished preservationist, wildlife lover, a naturalist at heart, and a remarkable photographer. Hugh was a dedicated advocate in getting the North Carolina "Ridge Law" passed. Hugh was also a respected community leader, and was the sole owner of a giant of a mountain rightfully known as, "Grandfather Mountain."

Hugh Morton exploits are legendary and too many to cover in this article, yet there's one tale of Hugh that the Blue Ridge Highlander would like to share, within our black bear feature stories. To know more about Mr. Morton, visit brief Grandfather Mountain section within the Avery County profile.

To set up this tale's backdrop, it's necessary to understand that Hugh inherited Grandfather Mountain from his grandfather in 1952 and began establishing the mountain into a landmark attraction, uniquely conducive to the natural experience of nature's own creation. Grandfather Mountain has over 4,000 acres of the property protected from perpetuity development for the benefit of mankind, wildlife and nature.

This special tale of Hugh's life, begins unbeknownst to him and his family when Mildred the Bear was born February 7, 1966 at the Atlanta Zoo in Georgia. Two years later, needing a wilderness home of her own, Hugh accepted Mildred, the loveable black bear, into his mountain domain and eventually into his own family. Having a backyard literally as big as a mountain, Hugh obviously thought there was plenty of room for this new, welcomed guest.

The two-year-old yearling arrived at Grandfather Mountain in 1968, just in time for a yearling's natural release into the wild. That same day, a syndicated television show was filming an episode of the "Arthur Smith Show." Their concept was for Brother Ralph Smith to perform a song named "the Preacher and the Bear" as the newly arrived bear wandered aimlessly through the scene, heading into the wilderness lands of Grandfather Mountain.

Well things didn't go the way the film crew and Brother Ralph had envisioned, it seems that Mildred liked "show business," She obviously liked the attention the craft had to offer, probably thought she was a born natural. She spent the day hanging around and bugging the film crew, and had no interest in going off into the woods to be alone. Like a lot of adolescent, she had that, "look at me" expression written all over her. Brother Ralph started calling her Mildred, and the name stuck.

Hugh MortonAt the end of the day the film crew headed out, leaving poor Mildred broken hearted along the side of the road, her first rejection, not even an offer of a future call back. Mildred must have thought they couldn't recognize real talent.

What Mildred herself didn't realize was, that a kind of P.T. Barnum agent with a camera was standing close by observing the whole scene. The camera-totting, potential star making bear agent also didn't know what the future would bring at that time either.

The truth was, Mildred didn't know she was a bear. Born in captivity during the 60's, she was more accustomed to people than bears. It seems that the secretarial staff at the Atlanta Zoo had hand raised Mildred and was spoiling her. That early hands on treatment of bears create what is called "imprinting," it basically takes away their wildness.

Mildred began life as a city girl bear before becoming a country girl bear. Like any potential female star, she'll just have to reinvent herself and adapt to a new audience. After the crew left that first day, sad Mildred wander slowly off and headed towards town, maybe she had aspirations to tryout for the local theater group.

I'm sure both the Atlanta Zoo and Hugh thought that she'd be safe releasing her at Grandfather Mountain; after all Grandfather Mountain is a large place, plenty of room to readapt. Mildred just didn't know what to do, she unintentionally scared people, they scared her, she scared local dogs, they scared her; a confused cycle began to take over. The "I want to be a star" ambition commonly comes with a lot of rejection in the beginning. If the spotlight of fame were to come her way, she'd just have to get use to her new outdoor world.

Within a week the North Carolina Wildlife Commission began calling Mr. Morton and told him for the bear's safety he needed to round Mildred up and help her learn to adapt to her new environment. To totally assimilate her into the wilds of Grandfather Mountain was out of the question, she had lost her natural bear nature. Already a human father, Hugh was about to become a Papa bear to Mildred as well.

Every day after that, Hugh and his newly adopted bear began bonding. In those times (the mid-60's), it was thought that what was good for us to eat was likely good for the bears (remember Mildred was spoiled by her original keepers). It seems in the beginning Hugh and Mildred picnicked together, sharing Fig Newton's and grape soda.

Obviously Mildred's natural entertainment talents convinced Hugh to put her in a show of her own, and like the good showman Hugh Morton was, he started bringing Mildred out for folks to see. While Hugh took care of Mildred's personal press release photos, the public joined in with their cameras and practically overnight she became the star of Grandfather Mountain. Mildred became so popular that Hugh built her an amphitheater. Appearing daily at her newly constructed amphitheater, Mildred posed for photographs at 10:00 a.m., 1:00, 3:00 and 4:00 p.m. "No personal autographs," were given, as far as we know.

After spending a lot of time with Mildred, Hugh decided that cubs were what Mildred needed most. Seeing Mildred as the big, sweet, cuddly, loveable star that she was always meant to be, the perfect match should be another star bear, one from Hollywood. A casting call was sent out and a tamed bear named Bimbo, a former cub on the "Gentle Ben," TV show, was thought to be suitable for the job.

One big problem, the name Bimbo and Gentle were not synonymous. In those early days of television the law required performing cubs and yearlings to have their claws and teeth pulled and a gun had to be held on them when on the set (we're all glad Mildred didn't sign that first contract with the Arthur Smith Show, she has such a beautiful smile.)

Bimbo had a previous bad contract; no eating utensils (no claws,) no more dental plan (no teeth) and firearms stood between any former contract renegotiations, this was one disgruntled bear. Mildred didn't care much for Bimbo's crass performance, too much method acting. They did have cubs together though, and fortunately male and female bears only take interest in one another one week out of the year in June, so the relationship was short term.

After giving birth, mama bears spend time in the nursery den before moving their cubs into the outdoor world. Female wild bears only mate once every two years, raising their cubs to yearlings, which is about an 18-month child rearing process. Mildred remained the star of the show and found the happiness and attention she had always longed for.

Of the many Mildred stories told, Hugh's daughter Catherine; retells one when see was 12-years old. Seems Hugh; the consummate photographer wanted a photo of Catherine and Mildred's two cubs together. Most starlets and mama bears prefer their children not to be publicly fondled or photographed. An attendant at Grandfather Mountain, who was fondly called "bar tender," coaxed Mildred out of her cage while another attendant gathered Catherine-Maxi-Mini-Mildredup Mildred's two cubs and placed them on Catherine's lap. Assuming that's all dad wanted her to do was a great underestimate of Hugh Morton the showman.

After the two cubs where seated in Catherine's lap, "Action!" might have been the command when Hugh instructed his attendant to let Mildred wander out of her trailer cage and onto the set. I can just imagine Catherine, the 12-year supporting actress must have been thinking, "I really want to make it to 13, I so want to make it to 13," all the while, clicking her heels and wishing on rainbows.

Catherine was no longer acting; her expressions of great concern were very real, even with dad assuring his little loved one that his big loved one wouldn't eat her. Hugh encouraged Catherine by telling her that this photo would likely pay for her college education. As the wise man of the mountain, Hugh knew Mildred was too tame and gentle to hurt anyone, and besides, eating family was prohibited on Grandfather Mountain.

Mildred wandered over to Catherine curiously and began to nuzzle her with her nose, totally approving Catherine's tender embrace of her two cubs. The photo shoot was a success, afterwards, Mildred rejected Hugh's offer for any formal education; as full time mother bear and star of the show, and she felt she had it all.

Daily matinee performances kept Mildred and her cubs busy working their craft and entertaining the crowds. A few years later Hugh became aware of a new concept in zoo design called "environmental habitats." This new concept was an enclosure in a setting of rocks and trees that would simulate a bear's natural habitat. Hugh built a 2-acre enclosure for Mildred and her three cubs Mini, Maxi and Honey Bear and their male companion Hobo. Mildred, the fabled queen actress of the amphitheater must have felt like she just got her villa in the country. Hugh was always thinking big, although he didn't realize a 2-acre natural habitat gave Mildred access to seclusion, away from her demanding public, I can almost visualize her wearing large dark sunshades to not be recognized. Catherine recalls spending her entire 15th summer on earth coaxing Mildred out of her trailer and onto the set.

The bears loved their new habitat eating, napping, playing, making bear noises and lumbering around as bears do. One of Mildred favorite things to do was to keep the other bears treed. She would watch the other bears climb a tree, then settle herself under the tree. When the other bears would start backing down the tree trunk, just to be mischievous, Mildred would hold her ground keeping the other bears treed to her hearts desire. She knew the power she had over the other supporting actors.

On New Years Day in 1993, Mildred the Bear passed away, she was 26-years old. Hugh followed Mildred in 2006. I can imagine the two of them performing a duet somewhere over the rainbow in another dimension. Hugh Morton and Mildred the Bear had a good performing run together on Grandfather Mountain, together as a team, they welcomed visitors to their world for nearly three decades. Thanks to the wonderful unity and choreography of their ensemble, Grandfather Mountain has a natural habitat that exhibits several species of mountain wildlife.

Mildred leaves behind wonderful stories and memories, her agent and personal photographer Hugh leaves behind a treasure trove of photos of his beloved Mildred the Bear, along with a monumental legacy in Grandfather Mountain.

The Highlander

In loving memory of
Hugh Morton and Mildred the Bear

Hugh Morton and Mildred his bear

Photos are the copyright of Grandfather Mountain and are used with permission.

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