Gage McKinney: St. Piran’s Day canceled, but Cornish still here
No one will toss pasties this year. The Cornish flag won’t rise above city hall and the choir won’t sing the Cornish anthem “Trelawny.”
As it has on other events, the pandemic has stamped canceled on this year’s St. Piran’s Day, Grass Valley’s quirky celebration named for Cornwall’s patron saint. But be assured, the Cornish are still here.
In their Celtic homeland, in the southwest corner of Britain, the Cornish mined tin since the Bronze Age and copper for nearly as long. They came to California not for riches but for a better life.
Here they applied their hard-rock mining skills, following the gold-rich quartz veins into the earth. They taught the Americans how to mine and made Grass Valley the richest gold district in the Golden State.
In Nevada County, Cornwall is never far away. The Union Editor Edmund Kinyon said when he arrived in Grass Valley in 1911: “It then seemed that I had stepped into an unknown foreign country. Fully three-fourths of the people were of Cornish birth or descent.” In Nevada City the figure was about one-third.
In our foothills, mining built the towns but mining families made the communities. Those families aren’t just our history. Today they are our neighbors.
You can meet Cornish descendants on the streets, like Dave and Sue Williams at Williams Stationary, who show pride in a Cornish heritage. Outside their shop they display St. Piran’s flag, a white cross on a black background, beside the Stars and Stripes.
Another descendant downtown, David George, has local roots six generations deep. His forebears prospected for gold, led the town band, taught in the schools and sold new cars. His ancestor William George, a grocer, became Grass Valley’s first Cornish-born mayor in 1893.
Businesses throughout the county descend from enterprising Cornish immigrants. Prospector’s Nursery and Sierra Metal Fabricators in Nevada City are managed by descendants of the Cornish Wasleys and Hansen Brothers by Bennallacks, a familiar name in the mining parishes of Cornwall.
Over at Sierra College, there’s a building named for Jerry Angove. He descends from Michael An Gof, leader of a failed rebellion against the English in 1597. Jerry has avoided being drawn-and-quartered like his ancestor. Instead, he earned degrees at Stanford and USC, and as Sierra College president established the Grass Valley campus.
No one should be fooled by an Irish surname. Endodontist Steve Murphy descendants from a Cornish tenor who became president of the Grass Valley Carol Choir. Since 1876 the choir has sung Cornish carols on the streets, and Steve and his daughter Maddie sing with them.
Other Cornish descendants in the Christmas choir include Rich Johns, Jack Pascoe and me. Choir director Eleanor Kentizer is a Cornish bard, a designated culture bearer.
At Searls Historic Research Library in Nevada City, her married name can’t disguise volunteer Brita Rozynski’s Cornish ancestry. She was born a Berryman and her mechanical-genius father ran the machine shop at the Idaho-Maryland mine.
The local cemeteries are full of headstones bearing peculiar Cornish names — like Polkinghorn, Tregoning and Penhollow. Today at Hooper and Weaver mortuary Debbie Prisk Olsen comforts the sorrowful with Cornish warmth.
Meetings of the Native Sons of the Golden West are filled with Cornish descendants, all proud Californians now. Mike Kochis, of the Davy family from near Launceston, Cornwall, keeps the rolls and minutes.
The Union newspaper has its own Cornish heritage, having launched the careers of two newsboys named Prisk who eventually owned the paper. Former Grass Valley Mayor Patti Ingram descends from a more recent Cornish publisher.
Even the Cornish who move away still consider this county their home. Pete Edwards came to Grass Valley as a boy from Pendeen, Cornwall, when his father became pumpman at the Empire mine. Having made a career in the Bay Area, Pete returns for high school reunions and to preside over the California Cornish Cousins, a heritage club.
More recent Cornish immigrants include Stuart Thomas, who met his wife after he overheard her, far from Cornwall or Grass Valley, talking about pasties. At last year’s St. Piran’s event, veterinary researcher Emily Pascoe from UC Davis won the pasty bake off. A daughter of Helston, Cornwall, she’s got the Celtic brogue.
Each year St. Piran’s Day proclaims, “Everyone’s Cornish today!” Cornish heritage helped to shape our foothill towns and belongs to everyone who loves them.
“We will miss the event and look forward to its triumphant return next year,” said Marni Marshall, executive director of the Grass Valley Downtown Association.
That means the best way to celebrate St. Piran’s Day this year is not by tossing a hot pasty but by eating one from Marshall’s Pasties on Mill Street or Grass Valley Pasty Company on South Auburn. Their pasties are what the Cornish – who habitually dropped the “h” — used to call “a letter from ‘ome.”
Gage McKinney teaches Cornish culture and history at Sierra College and lives two blocks from the nearest pasty shop in downtown Grass Valley. Contact him at http://www.gagemckinney.com.
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