Grass Valley’s corner Main & Auburn: ‘The Most Cornish Spot in America’
The corner southeast corner of Main and Auburn streets in Grass Valley (including the City Hall parking lot) may be the most Cornish spot in America.
On March 11 Grass Valley will host its second annual St. Piran’s Day celebration with a children’s bicycle parade and flag raising ceremony near the prominent corner, followed by the “Pasty Olympics,” a series of games. But the spot had a Cornish flavor long before pasties flew as shot puts.
The corner was the home for about 80 years of the Wisconsin Hotel, a local institution dating back to Gold Rush times and a very Cornish establishment.
Its name beckoned to the hundreds and even thousands of Cornish people who migrated to the Gold Country. Before the rush of 1849, many of these Cornish exercised their mining prowess among the zinc and iron mines of southwestern Wisconsin. Hundreds of them came west when they heard of gold, including 700 from the town of Mineral Point, WI, alone.
The hotel arose with the Gold Rush as a wooden structure on the corner and passed through several owners – including Thomas, Gray & Jefferie – with common Cornish names. In September 1855 a devastating fire demolished much of the town and consumed the Wisconsin. In all Grass Valley lost 300 buildings, valued at over $200,000.
The Wisconsin rebuilt to become Grass Valley’s finest hotel. With its brink walls and iron shutters and doors, it was an excellent example of Gold Rush architecture. It had 40 guest rooms, featuring marble-topped tables and dressers. It had a second floor dining room and balcony that looked over main street; a billiards room; and a100-foot hardwood bar. It rivaled the nearby Holbrooke Hotel.
A Cornishman named William Mitchell purchased the Wisconsin in 1862 with the proceeds of some successful mining near Placerville. He and his wife, Elizabeth, and their children operated the hotel for over 60 years.
The guest registers of the Wisconsin read like a Cornish census. The hotel hosted mining men and their families from Cornwall and America with distinctive names like Trerise, Polkinghorn, Buzza, Curnow and Trelawny. Many Cornish miners also boarded at the Wisconsin.
One of the most famous boarders was John Coad, who directed the town band in the 1860s. The band often played on the hotel balcony, entertaining guests in the second story dining room. Coad composed one of the carols still sung by the Grass Valley Cornish Carol Choir.
Cornish Carols were introduced to a wide audience by the Thomas brothers’ Silver Cornet Band when they played a carol concert from the balcony of the Wisconsin in 1875. People of all backgrounds were taken by the Christmas songs and the local Carol Choir began singing on the streets of Grass Valley soon after. The town counts Cornish carols among its most treasured traditions.
The Wisconsin Hotel also supported the Cornish wrestling tournaments that added to Grass Valley’s fame in the 19th century. The tournaments were held in a ring that sat 600 spectators. Located on Stewart Street, the wrestling ring was outside the rear door of the hotel and convenient to the bar.
Wrestlers would come from as far as Montana, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to compete in the tournament, held on July 4th. The winner walked away with $100 in gold. Cornishmen, of course, dominated the tournament. They suffered a shock one year when an Irishman who was new to the sport beat all comers and became the champ.
The Mitchell family sold the Wisconsin Hotel property to Standard Oil and the building was demolished in 1931 to make room for a gasoline station. Years later the property was acquired for the City Hall and public parking.
Twenty-five years ago, led by Mayor Frank Knuckey, the town dedicated a stamp mill to the memory of the Cornish miners who worked the local mines. Naturally, they erected the mill at Main and Auburn. Mayor Knuckey himself had learned to mine working beside Cornishmen, known as “Cornish Jacks,” in the Empire Mine.
Cornish Jacks Pasties established their shop across the street.
Then in 1998, when Grass Valley officially twinned with Bodmin, Cornwall, the sister-city relationship was solemnized with the raising of flags and singing of national anthems near the former site of the Wisconsin Hotel. The mayor of Bodmin wore his town’s mail, a piece of decorative armor.
On Saturday, March 11th, the tradition of the most Cornish spot in America continues.
Cornish enthusiasts in other parts of the country might despute Grass Valley’s claim. People in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, might argue that their Pendarius State Park is the most Cornish spot. There are several restore miners cottages on the site.
On Michigan’s Upper Peninsula people might point to the Methodist Church that opens once a year for a reunion of Cornish descendants beside the long-closed Central mine, arguing that that’s the most Cornish spot.
But there’s no doubt that Grass Valley has the best claim. In Nevada County, wrote historian Dr. A. C. Todd, “Cornwall is never far away.” It’s especially close at the corner of Main and Auburn.
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