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THE PROUD WOOD VETERANS OF OLD COVE FORT

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Its gunslots were like living dark eyes, slitted up and down, and filled with wonder of the past. I remember looking in the front entryway and sensing an aura of disuse and desertion. Still, it was a place that had once been alive and vital, built with stone so solid that its husk would not go away.

As a child, I was awed by the structure of old Cove Fort, a dusty square remnant of the pioneer past, located along the dreary expanse between Fillmore and Cedar City, and constructed of black lava stone, with an arched entrance in the front, overrun with weeds and abandoned.I had promised myself since it was restored a couple of years ago that I would drop off the freeway and see it once again. Skipped by the freeway, in recent decades it has languished along the old highway just out of sight, though it is easy to recognize its location because of the freeway exit signs that indicate you are passing the area.

Last week on the way home from St. George, Veloy and I were in an exploring mood. We dropped off the freeway at the Cove Fort exit, which hooked onto the old highway running south for a mile, curling around a hill or two and coming onto the fort from the north.

We didn't know if the fort itself would be open for visitors. We had heard that it had been closed during the winters since its restoration. But it was open, and presented a much different place from the image of my memory.

Still, in many ways it was the same - the broadly arched front entrance with a couple of scraggly tall trees in front, the creaking, boarded doors, now more sturdy on their hinges and opening onto an inner courtyard of winter-dull green lawn, which in comparison with memory seemed lush.

The doors and trim to the 11 or so rooms that circle the inner fort, as well as the eaves and cornices that wrap around the upper edges of the black lava walls, had been carefully restored to their former state and were crisply painted. The lady who took us on a walking tour from room to room pointed out that even though most of the interior furnishings are not original to the site, they are authentic antiques of the period, carefully selected to give an accurate feel for the time.

And they did reflect a strong sense of how the fort must have been in its heyday, when, as the major outpost between Cedar City and Fillmore, it was the stopping place for the twice-daily stages and a constant stream of passing travelers. Ira Hinckley, who spearheaded the building of the fort at the express request of Brigham Young, must have lived a fairly interesting existence here for many years, together with his growing family.

Looking out from the ramparts onto the bland and somewhat dreary landscape (which would have seemed even more isolated then), I couldn't help but wonder what would possess a person to live so far from other human habitation.

The summers must have been hot and dry, with carefully rationed water that surely would not have supported the finely mown grass of the restored inner yard. The thick walls of the rooms, however, would have made the inhabitants cool and comfortable in summer, and, with fireplaces in almost every room, relatively cozy in winter.

While the family lived in the northern half of the tiny fort, one of the rooms on the south was a telegraph room. Adjacent to that was the largest room in the fort, a dining room, with a large stove and kitchen on one end. This must have been a vibrant place at mealtimes, a place where the Hinckley children could sit and listen to all kinds of stories from passing travelers who boarded here for 25 cents a night.

To me the most intriguing aspect of the fort was the three aged and gnarled black locust trees located in the middle of the courtyard. What a story these trees - planted two years after the fort was completed - could tell.

Immediately, images sprung to mind of their planting, of holes being dug in hard-packed earth, and of daily waterings until the tiny starts could become established. Within a few years, the children who lived here played in their delicate shadows, as fragile saplings struggled to overcome the daily bruisings of passersby, and of horses tied to them, which probably nibbled at their branches.

Then there were decades of neglect, throughout most of this century, when the now-established trees barely made it through the dry summers, their branches thinning back to survive. Looking at them from the catwalk on the roof, I could see their many battle scars. High up there is a cable attached to the massive branches of two of the trees. One of the trees must be weak on one side; like aging soldiers, they seem to lean on each other's shoulders for support.

Still, there is a monumentality about them. They rise from the inner fort like ageless sentinels. None of us can fully appreciate the breadth of their experience.

Of all the assets considered when the fort was restored, surely these black locusts were at the top of the list. Nourished from the water that now seeps deep below the newly planted lawn, they are like old veterans in newly pressed uniforms, offering shade to a whole new and completely different generation of visitors.