Cornwall USA

While the Cornish in Cornwall sometimes struggle to retain their identity, dotted around the world the smell of freshly baked pasties, the taste of saffron buns and the lively sound of a Cornish folk dance are facets of everyday life. Pay a visit to a small town in Wisconsin, USA where the descendents of Cornish miners, who left the county in their thousands during the 19th century, keep their heritage well and truly alive.


Marion Paynter Howard is 76 years old. A retired farm wife, public librarian, and in her words “…always a mother”. Marion has lived all her life in and around Mineral Point, a town of just over 2,600 people, in Southwest Wisconsin USA, 200 miles northwest of Chicago. She grew up eating pasties, tea biscuits (a version of scones), seedy biscuits, and saffron cake.
She says, “My mother, who was not Cornish (her background many, many years back was Welsh) always told me that the Cornish did not consider themselves to be English. I have always known that the Paynter family was Cornish. Excuse my saying so, but I always sensed they were a little different from other folks”.

During the lead and zinc mining boom in the early 1800s, Mineral Point became a destination for skilled Cornish miners and at one time had a population greater than that of Milwaukee and Chicago combined and in the latter half of the century, was the biggest zinc oxide mining centre in the States. Zinc production peaked in 1917 but late in 1920 a severe depression hit the industry and the price of zinc collapsed. By the end of that decade, mining in Mineral Point was all but over

Now it’s a sleepy place. An artists’ enclave, set amongst verdant rolling hills but the Cornish character of the community remains prominent to this day, in large part due to the many limestone and sandstone buildings constructed by the early immigrants - the town is often described by visitors as if they have stumbled upon a quaint European village.

Marion’s paternal great-grandparents, William and Matilda (Francis) Painter, came from Gwennap near Redruth to Mineral Point in 1853. Her great-grandfather bought land from the US government and settled in LaFayette County, Wisconsin (about 15 miles east of Mineral Point). He was a miner in Cornwall, but in the US he became a farmer. However, the mines still took their toll. He died at age of 62 from a lung condition.Further back, she can trace her ancestry to Hercules Painter, born in 1773, whose family were miners and lived around, Four Lanes, Hayle Mills and Chacewater.

Eager to keep their heritage alive, the residents of Mineral Point are actively involved in the Southwest Wisconsin Cornish Society, formed in 1991. There is a Cornish Festival in the town each September and the members of the society, who have ancestral ties to Mineral Point and the old mining region, are widely scattered over the United StatesMarion reveals, “Our society has a St. Piran's Day dinner in March, and a quarterly newsletter, of which I am the editor. Mineral Point is twinned with Redruth in Cornwall as many of the people who came to dig for lead came from the mining areas around Redruth”.

When it comes to Marion’s ethnic identity, she is clear in saying “I am definitely an American first, by reason that this is where I am. I feel the pull of Cornwall very strongly in my heart and feel the old ties of family. I am sure that the family traits of conservativeness, thriftiness, honesty and God fearing have a lot to do with my Cornish background. There is a real feeling of kinship within the Cornish Society and with people we meet who come here, or I meet in Cornwall”

Marion’s first visit to Cornwall was in 1973. “My husband and I were in England visiting my nephew who was in the U.S. Air Force stationed north of London. We went to many places in Britain and 'did' Cornwall in about a day and a half. At that time I didn’t know a lot about our family history, but knew I wanted to come back when I knew more”

Since then she has visited Cornwall seven times. “I was completely surprised by the deep feelings experienced when first I went to Cornwall. I knew it would be interesting to see where my family came from, but I never expected what I felt.”

Catching up with her extended family that still live in the county, Marion was amazed at how alike they were: “Our temperament, personality, 'touchiness', generosity, attitude, sense of humour, character. I could sense how their brains worked”.


Astounded by how similar in personality she was to her long-lost relatives, Marion was also struck by the accents and architecture of Cornwall.
“I remember my Grandpa Paynter 'ad the hould Cornish haccent, where 'e knocked the haiches off'n where they do belong and put'em back where they don’t belong to be. One of his favourite dishes for supper was ‘I believe I'd like some 'ash’. The stone cottages in Cornwall look very much like the Cornish style stone house my great-grandfather built on his farm in Wisconsin- it was indeed like coming home”

Marion’s love of her Cornish heritage and the thrill of keeping it alive for generations to come are evident in her tireless activities in promoting her ‘Cornishness’.
“I have always loved singing and grew up on American folk songs. In the last few past years I have been especially interested in traditional Cornish folks songs and have done many programs for schools and civic groups. I have done workshops of traditional Cornish songs at several of the North American Cornish Gatherings and have also performed many times a first person living history piece called "Mary Ann", the character of a Cornish woman who comes from Cornwall to Mineral Point in the 1830's. One of the thrills of my life was presenting this piece at the first Dewhelans (homecoming for descendants of the Cornish diaspora, which in 2008, will be held in Looe) in 2002, standing in the shadow of Pendennis Castle in Falmouth”.                
In 1998, Marion’s work in preserving and promoting Cornish heritage was recognised when she was made a bard of the Cornish Gorsedd. “It was an honour I never in the world expected and I felt very humbled that my efforts were deemed worthy of such a tribute.
Photos: From the Mineral Point Historical Society Glass Plate Negative Collection, used with permission.More information about Mineral Point can be found at www.mineralpoint.com