Terry McLaughlin: Cornish roots run strong in Nevada County
After the discovery of gold-bearing quartz in 1850, Grass Valley became the leading gold producer in California.
Hundreds of miners made the long journey from the tin and copper mines of Cornwall, England to try their fortune in the depths of Nevada County’s deep quartz mines.
Bringing with them hundreds of years of experience working underground, the Cornish dominated jobs and mines in Grass Valley. They were the world’s greatest hard-rock miners, experts at sinking shafts, and the inventors of the famous Cornish pump used to remove water from the mines. Local lore says that every Cornishman needed a helper and always recommended just the man for the job, “My cousin Jack.” This is how Cornish miners came to be known as Cousin Jacks.
The Grass Valley Male Voice Choir is the direct descendant of the Cornish miners’ choirs that flourished in the Gold Rush era, when the sound of their melodies floated from the mine yards in the early mornings before they descended deep into the mine shafts. Originally, Cornish carols were sung in clubs, private homes, or in bars or pubs.
According to local historian, Gage McKinney, “In 1875, some people in town heard the carols and asked them to sing for the whole town.”
The following year, led by lay preacher John Ferrell, the Carol Choir formed. The choir sang traditional Cornish music on the street in Grass Valley, at the intersection of Main and Mill, before moving to the steps of what was then The Union on Mill Street — the current site of Body Balance Academy.
The renowned Cornish Choir was organized in 1890, assembling every Christmas Eve on the steps of The Union building to entertain the holiday revelers with their music. During the war years of 1940 and 1941 carols were broadcast by radio to the world from the depths of the Idaho-Maryland Mine.
During those days, Cornish miners comprised the majority of Grass Valley’s population. But when the mines closed down in the 1950s, many of the town’s traditions began to fade as well. By 1967, the remaining carolers decided to cease their public performances.
The driving force behind the revival of Cornish Carol singing in Grass Valley was Eleanor Kenitzer, an experienced choral conductor raised in North Carolina, who came to the Grass Valley area in 1988. In 1990, she worked with a few of the surviving choir members to revive the Cornish Carol Choir, which featured both men’s and women’s voices.
When the Cornish Carol choir visited Cornwall, England in 1997, they were moved by the wonderful sounds of the Cornish male voice choirs, and the Grass Valley Male Voice Choir was born. Since that time, remaining under the direction of Kenitzer, the Grass Valley Male Voice Choir has been an active and integral part of the broader Nevada County musical scene.
Remaining close to their Cornish traditions, the choir has toured Cornwall twice, in 2000 and 2002. They have participated in various annual Cornish reunions in America, and hosted visiting Cornish choirs in Grass Valley in the early 2000s. Some of today’s singers descend from the original Cornish miners.
The Cornish roots run strong throughout our county, and those descendants find themselves in good company. Many famous Americans descended from Cornish immigrants to the United States, including celebrities such as actresses Jayne Mansfield and Edie Falco, actor Michael J. Fox, and popular singer Randy Travis.
A lesser known descendent of Cornish ancestry is Natasha Tretheway, the American Pulitzer Prize winning poet, who was named U.S. Poet Laureate and Poet Laureate of Mississippi in 2012. Tretheway is a Cornish language-derived surname.
Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th President of the United States, descended from Thomas Burgess, an emigrant from Truro, Cornwall to Salem, Massachusetts in the 17th Century. Our 32nd President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was also a descendant of Thomas Burgess, whose grandmother happened to be a Tretheway.
One of Grass Valley’s legendary visitors, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, descended from the Clemens family from Looe, Cornwall.
Grass Valley’s strong ties to the Cornish people were recognized in a December 2003 television episode of “California’s Gold”, hosted by the late Huell Howser, who traveled to Grass Valley to see how Cornish Christmas traditions have been kept alive in our town.
Featuring our Cornish carol singers, and filmed at the Grass Valley Methodist Church, on the steps of The Union building, and at the Holbrooke Hotel, the highlight of the show occurred when 12 members of the choir descended into the Sixteen to One Mine in Alleghany to re-enact the 1940 national radio broadcast that had taken place from 2000 feet underground in a gold mine.
Each year the Grass Valley Male Voice Choir and ensemble performs a Christmas concert and two other concerts that vary in content from year to year — a spring concert in May and an Ice Cream Social performance during the summer. They also perform at various meetings and events throughout the Gold Country and Northern California.
New voices are always welcome, so please consider joining this outstanding choral group, rich in tradition, song, and camaraderie, by attending a rehearsal at Peace Lutheran Church in Grass Valley on Thursdays at 5 p.m.
And mark your calendar for the 2019 Christmas Concerts to be held at Peace Lutheran Church on Saturday, Dec. 14 at 2 p.m. and Tuesday, Dec. 17 at 7:30 p.m.
Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at email@example.com.
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