Did you know that President Hinckley’s father and grandfather were pioneers? In 1867, when President Hinckley’s father, Bryant, was just three months old, Brigham Young asked Bryant’s father, Ira Nathaniel Hinckley, to build a fort near Cove Creek in central Utah. Ira supervised a team of skilled workers who raised a strong fortress with walls of volcanic rock and limestone. The fort was built in a wide, dusty valley along the “Mormon Corridor,” the trail that most travelers followed on their way to southern Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and California. Before the fort was built, there had been a sixty mile stretch with no place for travelers to find food, water, or protection.
The fort was like a busy miniature town, and it was a fun place for children. Thick stone walls eighteen feet high enclosed a courtyard with a cistern (a tank for storing water) in the middle. On one side of the courtyard were three rooms for the family and two spare rooms for guests. On the other side were a meat room, washroom, kitchen, dining room, telegraph room, and post office. Outside the walls were a barn, a corral, a blacksmith shop, a garden, a pond, and a track for horse races.
Twice a day the stagecoach rumbled into the courtyard with weary travelers. The driver changed his tired horses for fresh ones from the barn while his passengers refreshed themselves with food from the kitchen. The Hinckley children helped prepare the meals and take care of the horses.
The children worked hard doing many of the same chores as children do today, such as washing dishes, cleaning their rooms, and sweeping the floors. They also did chores that we almost never do, such as helping to make soap and butter. To make soap, they mixed lard and lye in a large brass kettle over a fire. Then they poured the mixture out and cut it into bars. To make butter, they separated cream from milk, put the cream into a churn, and turned the churn’s handle until the cream hardened into butter.
In spite of all the work, the children still found time to play. In one popular game, they threaded string through two holes in a button or a wood chip, twirled the string to wind it up tightly, then alternately pulled and released the string to make the button spin.
Wintertime brought its own kind of fun. The children had homemade sleds and skates. The pond was only a few minutes away, so every time it froze, they went skating. Wintertime also brought the best treat of all—Christmas. Charles Alexander Semler, a miner and friend of the family, brought each child a present and the family a Christmas tree. But this was no ordinary one. Semler put sweet, juicy oranges on the branches. Christmas was the only time the children had this treat.
Though they were miles from the nearest town, the children knew what was going on in the world because of the telegraph. All sorts of news came over the wires. One grown-up child remembered that “in those early days it was not isolation to be at the fort. The news of the great, growing West throbbed over the lines into the telegraph office at the fort and through her post office passed the news of the new western empire.”
The post office received letters twice a day from express riders, and it sent letters out with them. The children enjoyed watching the riders race in, change horses, and race out again.
Miners, magicians, cowboys, pioneers, writers, businessmen, Indians, artists, and many other kinds of people visited the fort. The children helped set the table for these dinner guests. The real excitement came after dinner, when the visitors would tell stories of their lives and entertain the children with their skills. Once a ventriloquist performed for them. He made it sound like he was across the room, even though he was sitting right next to them. He also had a “magic pen” that he used to write the childrens’ names on their handkerchiefs. Even after the handkerchiefs were washed, the names were still there.
The majority of visitors were Mormon pioneers. Prophets were also regular guests. Brigham Young brought as many as seventy-five people when he visited. It took a lot of work to cook enough food for such a large group, but it was good to have a chance to speak with the President of the Church.
Being Latter-day Saints was very important to the Hinckleys. They invited everyone, Mormon or not, to evening prayer. They often held church services at the fort. On other Sundays, they would wake up at 4:00 A.M. to get their chores done, wash up, and go to church in Fillmore, twenty-five miles away. It was a six-hour trip each way, but the family enjoyed the time together.
Cove Fort was an exciting place to grow up. The blacksmith’s hammer clanged, and cowboys who tended the tithing herd sang around the campfire each night. The children were always busy whether they were doing chores, watching the mail riders, listening to stories, or playing games, Bryant Hinckley and his family lived at the fort for ten years. He later told his young son, Gordon, that growing up at the fort was fun. He even took his family to see it.
If you are ever in central Utah, you can visit the fort yourself. When you walk through its massive doors, you’ll find yourself in the pioneer world that President Hinckley’s father knew as a child.