Grass Valley officially designated ‘Cornish Town USA’
It’s official, Grass Valley. You are the most Cornish place in America.
The organizers of the city’s St. Piran’s Day pasty tossing contest proclaim as much every March. And now the city has a plaque to prove it.
The first “Cornish Town, USA” plaque was presented to Mayor Jason Fouyer at last week’s city council meeting by the California Cornish Cousins, a heritage group that promotes the culture of the British duchy where hard-rock mining was prevalent.
It was after the same group had announced in March that Grass Valley was the most Cornish town in America that they heard from Cornish enthusiasts in other locales. Mineral Point, Wisconsin, Calumet, Michigan, and nearby Nevada City all cried out for recognition of their Cornish heritage.
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So to acknowledge the pioneering spirit of their ancestors and the towns that have preserved their heritage, the California Cornish have initiated the “Cornish Town, USA” designation.
“Naturally,” said California Cornish president Gage McKinney, “we want to recognize Grass Valley first. To me, on any given day, any of the places where the Cornish settled in this country could be the most Cornish town in America.”
What the Cornish towns across the country have in common is minerals. They were the places where the Cornish immigrants in the 19th and early 20th century brought their mining skills.
Wherever copper, zinc, lead, silver and gold were mined, the Cornish miners drilled the deep shafts, followed the veins, and operated the pumps. They also helped to build churches, establish schools and create communities on the Western frontier.
What most of the towns also have in common are pasty shops. The Cornish pasty (a meat and vegetable pie) was a style of food that miners could carry underground.
“Grass Valley owes a debt to many of the earlier mining settlements,” McKinney said. It was Cornish people from Mineral Point, for example, who came to California by the hundreds during the Gold Rush.” He added: “They filled the pews of the Methodist Church and helped to build Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Grass Valley.”
In the coming months the California Cornish will present Cornish Town USA plaques to Gold Hill, Nevada City and New Almaden, California, near San Jose.
“There was a large Cornish community at the quicksilver mine there,” McKinney said. “Some of them were recruited from Grass Valley.”
A plaque will be awarded at Mineral Point when that town holds its annual Cornish festival in September.
McKinney described the Cornish as just one of the many minority cultures in the world whose language has been displaced and folkways are dying
“We want to celebrate all the people who made American,” McKinney said, “and we want to share our culture as we do our pasties.”
In America, the Cornish miners became known as “Cousin Jacks.”
Owing to the similarity of their names they all seemed related. The women were dubbed “Cousin Jennies.”
In the 19th century many of Grass Valley’s merchants and civic leaders were Cornish, and as late as the 1920s, two-thirds of the town’s population had Cornish ancestry, according to a press release.
Today Grass Valley is unique for preserving the Cornish Christmas carols that are sung by a choir every December. The Grass Valley Male Voice Choir, directed by Eleanor Kenitzer, preserves the tradition of male singing that came from the old country. The Cornish are a Celtic people, though less known than the Irish, Scottish and Welsh.
The California Cornish Cousins had their annual gathering in Grass Valley/Penn Valley last weekend. They will hold their 25th anniversary gathering next June on the campus of the University of the Pacific at Stockton. For information about joining, see CalifCornishCousins.org.
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