Church, family remember early fort

Fort Willden, an early LDS settlement and way station – one that pre-dated Cove Fort by seven years – has been memorialized with a plaque placed by the Church and unveiled here Sept. 21.

Fort Willden, after it had been abandoned, was used by builders while they were constructing Cove Fort, located about 190 miles south of Salt Lake City near the junction of I-15 and I-70 in southern Utah.About 800 descendants of Charles W. and Eleanor Willden – coming from as far away as Wisconsin, Connecticut, North Carolina and Canada – gathered on the picnic ground to the east of Cove Fort for the unveiling of the plaque on what was the spot where Fort Willden stood.

As president of the Utah South Area, Elder Ben B. Banks of the Seventy conducted the unveiling by assignment from the First Presidency and was a speaker on the program. His wife, Susan, attended with him.

He called upon Mae Willden, 92, to participate with him in uncovering the plaque. A member of the Soccorro Ward, Albuquerque New Mexico South Stake, she is thought to be the oldest living Willden descendant, certainly the oldest at the unveiling.

The plaque tells the story of Fort Willden. Charles and Eleanor, English converts to the Church, came to Utah with their six children in 1849. He served two missions in England, once while living there, and again after settling in Utah.

Brigham Young called Charles, an iron worker, to work in the Cedar City iron mission in the 1850s. After the iron works closed down, he acquired 160 acres at Cove Creek in southern Utah, between Fillmore and Beaver.

In 1860, the family commenced construction of Fort Willden on the bank of the creek, erecting an adobe house and corral and enclosing both within a 150-square-foot stockade of cedar posts.

Before retreating to Beaver for the winter, they "cached" a harvest of grain for spring planting.

In late winter in 1861, their newlywed daughter, Ann Jane, and her husband, Neils Christian Johnson, were trapped at the fort as they returned from a search for work in Salt Lake City. The adobe house was inadequate for shelter so they constructed a dugout cabin and subsisted on the stored grain.

Passersby took word of their plight to the rest of the family, who returned to the fort in the spring and built a two-room home. The ranch-fort thrived for a few years, and travelers between Salt Lake City and St. George found it a convenient and safe stopping point.

A harsh winter and the threat of the Blackhawk Indian War forced the family to abandon the fort in 1865. For the next two years, it sheltered mail carriers and, in 1867, was used to set up an office of the Deseret Telegraph. Later that year, ancestors of President Gordon B. Hinckley, directed by the Church, arrived and established the larger, sturdier Cove Fort. Charles Willden and his sons assisted in that construction.

Cove Fort was restored in recent years and on May 21, 1994, was dedicated by President Hinckley as a Church historic site. (See May 28, 1994, Church News.)

In his talk, Elder Banks traced the history of Fort Willden. "Today, we pay tribute to this courageous family who gave everything they had for the Kingdom," he said. "It is a wonderful legacy and should be a motivator to all their descendants to strive to make themselves worthy of such a wonderful heritage."

Eleanor Romney, a Willden descendent and family history missionary in Salt Lake City, organized the gathering. She expected at first only a few dozen responses to invitations sent out but was amazed at the turnout.

"We are pleased to have such a noble heritage," she said. "The Willdens put their roots deep down in gospel soil. . . . They never moved from their hope in the gospel. Charles prepared the ground, cultivated and nourished it. It's now up to us to see that the harvest is a good one."

Elder Sherman Hinckley, brother of President Gordon B. Hinckley and director of the visitors center at Cove Fort, also addressed the gathering. He said having Fort Willden in place undoubtedly made it easier for workers to construct Cove Fort.

The main reason for restoring Cove Fort, he said, "is to depict the integrity and the history of the pioneers."

More than 300 missionaries have served at the site since he and his wife have been there, he said. "Our motto here at Cove Fort is that we want everybody who comes to go away feeling better than when they arrived. And that's what these missionaries are trying to accomplish."