A few months ago, I began hearing rumors that somewhere in the mountains around the Santa Maria Valley, there was a fort.

I was told it was built by a former Santa Maria mayor in an old Western style and it even had a working cannon.

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The prospect of a secret fortress only a few miles from where I grew up was too exciting to pass up, so I began an investigation. The investigation didn’t last long. It only took a single phone call to local real estate investor Len Knight to confirm that there was indeed a fort and to secure an invitation to see it. A few days later, Knight and I, along with his two granddaughters bounced up a dirt driveway that veered off of Tepusquet Canyon Road.

My hopes for an Indiana Jones-style adventure were dampened when I learned the fort is a bit of an open secret. Construction was begun in 1952 by Elwin Mussell and once it was completed, the fort served as a community gathering spot where many a barbecue was held. That tradition continues today as the Knight family continues to use the fort for charitable ends; holding fundraisers, hosting Boy Scout troops and auctioning off barbecues there for Rotary Clubs.

Still, it’s not a place everyone gets to see, and I was eager to get there. When we pulled into Mussell Fort we were greeted by something that looked more like an old Western main street than a fort. A row of buildings make up the fort and include a fire tower, sheriff’s office, blacksmith’s shop, bed and breakfast, and a saloon. It’s classic Old West, from the fading facades to the rustic boardwalk. I’m told that the look even earned this place a starring role in a couple movies.

Despite the lack of walls, the fort is protected by no less than three locked gates, a winding farm road and plenty of “No trespassing” signs. The first thing visitors see when pulling up to the fort is the storied cannon. Sadly it doesn’t fire anymore, but I later learned from Elwin’s daughter in-law, Audrey, that wasn’t always the case.

The cannon was captured from Japan and given to the city of Santa Maria after World War Two because their original Veterans hall cannon was melted down for the war effort. But the cannon never ended up at the Veterans hall and was eventually put in a dump, until Elwin got permissions to move it up to his fort. In the early days, he had fun blasting the side of a nearby mountain with the cannon but after the FBI got wind, he was forced to disable it.

The fort is full of antiques and curiosities from bygone years. Inside the sheriff’s office, there is a handbook of police ordinances from turn-of-the-century Santa Maria. Among other, mostly mundane topics, the book includes a few gems like instructions for running livestock through the city.

Audrey said most of her father’s collection was built while he and his wife traveled the county looking for items of historic value. After it became better known, Elwin’s friends began making their own contributions to the collection that now rivals some museums.

As we explored the fort further, it was hard to fathom how something so impressive was built so far back in the wilderness more than a half-century ago. “How that guy did it, I’ll never know,” said Len. According to Audrey, it was built one piece at a time. Her husband, Douglas, used to spend his teenage weekends building the road up to the fort and when it was completed, trucks hauled the first buildings up to their new homes.

Elwin poured much of his life into the project. “He wanted a place where the people of Santa Maria could come up and enjoy the wilderness and cowboy lifestyle,” said Audrey. The founder of Mussell Fort is now buried on a hill that overlooks it. Len said, though Elwin is gone, he is not forgotten. “I feel his heart and soul in the fort. It was really his lifetime dream.”