The Story Behind Mildred the Bear of Grandfather Mountain
Once upon a time there was a bear who didn’t know she was a bear.
Let me tell you a story: Once upon a time there was a bear who didn’t know she was a bear. Her name was Mildred and she loved Fig Newtons, orange soda, and picnics in the woods around her western North Carolina home with her best friend Hugh Morton.
It was Morton who brought two-year-old Mildred from the Atlanta Zoo to Grandfather Mountain in 1968. The Linville area retreat had been turned into a resort by Hugh MacRae, who had created the Yonahlossee Road or “trail of the black bear.” The hope was that Mildred and her male partner would breed in the wild and fill that corner of the Blue Ridge wilderness with black bear cubs. The male bear fled the vicinity, though, never to be seen again. Mildred stuck around. Specifically, she stuck around the park’s offices where she appreciated the company of humans. After all, she had been bottle-fed by humans at the Atlanta Zoo, and had been raised and domesticated by humans since she was born. In some ways, humans were more her people than bears.
Mildred wasn’t Mildred quite yet, though. She earned her name when a film crew for The Arthur Smith Show, the first nationally syndicated country music show on TV, came to shoot a segment at Grandfather Mountain, according to the Citizen Times. They brought comedian Ralph Smith along for the show and it was Smith who gave Mildred her name.
Come 1973, Hugh Morton had inherited Grandfather Mountain from his grandfather, Hugh MacRae. He was a wildlife photographer and conservationist, and took a liking to Mildred and the two became fast friends. The unlikely pair would go on nature walks together and have impromptu picnics of Fig Newtons and orange juice, according to Our State, which celebrates North Carolina life and history. Morton built a two-acre habitat for Mildred, but as the unofficial mascot of Grandfather Mountain she roamed fairly freely. She occasionally even left Grandfather Mountain to nearby Linville, peeking into windows and sitting on the front porches of the houses, according to the Charlotte Observer. She was also known to swing by the snack bar, pose for pictures with guests, and even accidentally terrify golfers who had no idea Mildred didn’t know she was a bear.
Mildred did her part to repopulate Grandfather Mountain with bears. She had nine cubs and adopted three others.
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When she passed away in 1993, the Charlotte Observer memorialized Mildred as the “gentle symbol of Grandfather Mountain.” To mourn her passing, the flag flew at half-staff as befitting a bear who didn’t know she was a bear.