Midsummer Eve: Keeping the Fires of Cornwall

During my Valparaiso University semester abroad, in Cornwall I enjoyed reading by the hearth in the youth hostel, hiking along the cliffs, and watching the sea.  I remember standing at Land’s End looking out over the Atlantic Ocean, thinking about the many emigrants who had watched their homeland fade into a gray haze of sea and sky.

I did not know then that my sister Emily and I would write about the Cornish settlers of our own Wisconsin community.  In the tree-shaded Yorkville Methodist cemetery, the pale weathered stones of the pioneers are scattered among the sharp granite markers of their descendants.

In the Plank Road days, Cornish settlers must have sought ways to connect the old ways with the new.  Along with telling stories of the old country, they shared the tastes of home–pasties every day and saffron cake on special occasions–and worshiped together at the Methodist “mud chapel,” singing hymns and carols known for generations.

Other traditions must have persisted as well.  There are no cliffs in Yorkville, so on Midsummer Eve the Cornish pioneers were never to see “a chain of fires on the clifftops stretching all along the seacoast,”  as Gran Mather described the custom to Florence.  Yet lighting a bonfire on June 23 and sharing a ritual for prosperity in the coming year would be one way of honoring the old ways and helping the young people to appreciate the place they knew “only through stories and songs, the land where others shared in the keeping of the fires.”

By the end of the nineteenth century, such Midsummer traditions had died out even in Cornwall, but in the 1920s various organizations were formed to preserve the Cornish heritage.  The motto of the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies is “Cuntelleugh an brewyon us gesys na vo kellys travyth” (Gather up the fragments that are left that nothing be lost).  You can learn more about Midsummer Eve fires and other Cornish customs at the Federation website: <http://www.oldcornwall.org/&gt;

The Plank Road Summer Resources for Teachers include materials related to immigration and Cornish traditions provided by the Wisconsin historic site of Pendarvis.


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Categories: Cornish in Wisconsin, Plank Road Summer Teaching Ideas, Racine County, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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