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OLD FORT IS LINK TO ROOTS FOR PRESIDENT HINCKLEY

SHARE OLD FORT IS LINK TO ROOTS FOR PRESIDENT HINCKLEY

Gordon B. Hinckley's ancestry runs through the Mayflower and Plymouth Colony, and he jokes that if pricked, he will bleed blue blood.

But it is when President Hinckley talks of a small boy watching for stagecoaches from the walls of a sturdy frontier fort that the Mormon leader comes alive.The fort was built by his grandfather. The boy was his father. And the stagecoach sometimes brought Brigham Young.

Next Saturday, President Hinckley will dedicate a restored Cove Fort near the junction of Interstates 15 and 70 in central Utah, 127 years after the great colonizer took Ira Hinckley down there in 1867 and told him to build a fort.

"I think when Brigham Young left, he (Ira) must have looked around him at that forbidding site and said, `Why, oh why, am I here?' " President Hinckley, first counselor in the church's governing First Presidency, said in an interview.

But Ira Hinckley wouldn't have stood around for long.

"My grandfather was a man who prayed. He got on his knees and prayed and then stood on his feet to make it happen," President Hinckley said.

With basalt, limestone and timber from the area, Ira Hinckley supervised construction of a 100-foot-square fort with walls 18 feet high and 4 feet thick at the base. It was finished in seven months. He added 12 rooms, a courtyard and dining hall.

President Young wanted a fort midway between Fillmore, 35 miles to the north, and Beaver, 25 miles to the south. He sought to protect the telegraph and mail offices from Indian attack - the Black Hawk War would run another year - and to provide food and lodging for travelers along the so-called "Mormon Corridor" between Salt Lake City and St. George.

Today, Cove Fort is the only one of 16 such structures built by the Mormons in the Utah Territory that still stands intact.

"It's a forlorn place," said President Hinckley, who is 83. "And yet it was a great place for boys."

One such boy was President Hinckley's father, Bryant S. Hinckley, who was 3 months old when he was brought to Cove Fort and spent his first 10 years there. One day when he was 8, he and a brother and the telegraph operator sneaked the absent Ira Hinckley's six-shooter from under his pillow.

Bryant Hinckley later gave this account:

"The operator examined the gun and said it was not loaded and, putting the pistol to his forehead, said he wouldn't be afraid to pull the trigger. But fortunately he didn't, or there would have been one less operator.

"He handed it to my brother Ed, and he pulled the trigger and shot me in the left leg. I have a vivid recollection of warm blood filling my little shoe and things began to get hazy."

Luckily, Ira Hinckley arrived home just then and summoned a doctor from Beaver. But he couldn't retrieve the slug, even probing with a darning needle, and Bryant carried it with him the rest of his life.

On one of his visits, President Young took the young Bryant on his knee and gave him a coin. As an adult, Bryant would tell his own family, not without humor: "One of the great regrets of my life is that I spent the money instead of saving that coin. It would be priceless today."

Well after the fort had outlived its purpose, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sold it to William Kesler in 1919. As the family operated a store and gas station, a son, Otto Kesler, did what he could to repair and restore Cove Fort. But by 1987 the property was on the verge of being sold for taxes.

That's when President Hinckley and his cousin, the late Arza Hinckley, stepped in. They and others formed the Historic Cove Fort Acquisition and Restoration Foundation, solicited donations from the extended Hinckley family and bought the fort and its 11 acres.

In 1988, it was deeded back to the church, which has painstakingly restored it. An old log house in faraway Coalville, built by Ira Hinckley before his Cove Fort assignment and the birthplace of Bryant Hinckley, was moved and restored across the street from the fort.

"Everything has worked out and I am very happy," said President Hinckley, who has spent much of his 13 years in the First Presidency directing the day-to-day affairs of the church, owing to the advanced age and frail health of its last two presidents.

During that time, no church leader has sermonized more often or eloquently about the faith's pioneer heritage and its importance to the modern church. And as the interview - granted expressly to discuss Cove Fort - neared an end, a tone of urgency animated President Hinckley's words about the fort and its builders.

"This is the only thing of its kind left which illustrates in graphic form, where people can see and feel the environment, and catch the ambiance of the faith of those who pioneered this area," he said.

Without a knowledge of Mormonism's roots and faith in the validity of those roots, President Hinckley said, "we don't have anything. That's the essence of the whole thing."

Ira Hinckley, whose first wife died of cholera on the trek west in 1852, died in 1904. President Hinckley, born in 1910, never knew his grandfather. But as his fist struck his thigh in rhythm with these words, the kinship was unmistakable:

"They went where they were asked to go and did what they were asked to do, regardless of what it cost in terms of comfort, or money, or life itself."