Southwestern Wisconsin celebrates its Cornish heritage.
Tucked away in the rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin—and just seven miles from our headquarters—lies one of America’s most picturesque small towns. Exit the highway and head into Mineral Point (Population: 2,617) and you’ll find streets of quaint stone cottages, and homes bearing unusual names like “Mousehole” and “Trelawny.”
On some streets, you could be forgiven for believing yourself magically transported to the scene of a novel by Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. With its old-world charm Mineral Point casts a spell on all who visit—it is a place unlike any other in the United States.
The town owes its unique character to immigrants from Cornwall, the southwestern peninsula of Great Britain. Drawn by the promise of a better life in America, Cornish miners were also in demand during Wisconsin’s lead boom in the 1830s. They came to Wisconsin in such large numbers that by 1850, half the population of the so-called “Lead Region” was Cornish. These “Cousin Jacks” joined other immigrants as well as American miners called “Badgers” because they spent so much time underground (and from whom our state gets its nickname). Although the Cornish ended up all over southwestern Wisconsin, the largest concentration settled in Mineral Point.
Today visitors come for the galleries, potteries, boutiques and bookstores; but 170 years ago, Mineral Point was a grimy town with a tough reputation. For a while, it housed the territorial jail, and was the destination for prospectors hoping to make a fast buck. It’s easy to forget that Wisconsin was once the “Wild West.” With the Gold Rush, the more restless types upped and left, but many of the Cornish stayed, or came back after a stint in California.
A half-century after the mines ground to a halt, the hill where the Cornish toiled is now a restored prairie, and opposite, several of their homes comprise the Pendarvis historic site. Costumed guides provide tours of the stone cottages and the “kiddlywink,” a cozy Cornish pub.
However, the Cornish legacy isn’t just historic and picturesque—it’s also delicious.
Every restaurant in Mineral Point—from homespun diners to brewpubs to upscale bistros—features the famous Cornish pasty on its menu. A pastry turnover filled with meat and vegetables, the pasty was a handy miner’s lunch. It’s been popular in southwestern Wisconsin ever since the Cornish came, and local schools and churches bake batches of them for fundraisers. Followed by saffron cake, it’s the quintessential Cornish cuisine.
Mineral Point’s celebration of all things Cornish culminates in the annual Midwest Cornish Festival every September. A bard from Cornwall often serves as the guest of honor presiding over a weekend of parades and pasties. However, the festival also provides genealogy workshops and lessons in the ancient Cornish language, which is undergoing a revival in Cornwall. One of the event’s highlights is the “Crowdy Crawn” which means “a bag to store odds and ends” and includes a variety of storytelling, crafts and entertainment. In the evening, Cousin Jacks and Cousin Jennies—or anyone else who’d like to be Cornish for the day—can cozy up in the kiddlywink for traditional music.
The festival also frequently hosts the biennial “Gathering of Cornish Cousins,” and you don’t need to go far to find them. Many families in southwestern Wisconsin bear distinctly Cornish names (and we know quite a few of these folks!). Like other “cousins” across the United States, they can trace their ancestry back to a mining family that left Cornwall in the 1830s. With Wisconsin as their destination, they came with little more than the clothes on their backs and the traditions they carried in their hearts and memories. As they sailed into the Atlantic, many of them may have taken a final glimpse at the most westerly headland of their native country—which, appropriately enough, is called Land’s End.
Photos courtesy of: Pendarvis.
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