Quaker Marvin Rockwell reminisces on original settlement

Marvin Rockwell speaks on Jan. 5, 2012 at the Monteverde Institute in Costa Rica. Sally French/Missouri School of Journalism

Marvin Rockwell speaks on Jan. 5, 2012, at the Monteverde Institute in Costa Rica. Sally French/Missouri School of Journalism

by Marie French

MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica – Marvin Rockwell remembers one of the first cases he treated in Costa Rica. An 8-year-old Costa Rican boy had cut his foot with an axe.

“Of course, I had no anesthesia or anything,” Rockwell said. “That poor little fellow had to sit there while I sewed it up.”

Rockwell arrived in Monteverde with 11 families of Quakers in 1951. They left the United States mainly because of the mandatory registration for the draft during the Korean War. Costa Rica was particularly appealing because the country abolished the military in 1948. Pacifism is an important element of the philosophy of the Religious Society of Friends.

During World War II, Rockwell refused to carry a rifle. He served in the medical corps instead, which proved useful because he was the only one with medical training in the Monteverde group. He was the doctor for both the Quaker farmers and the neighboring Ticos.

“I treated everything from the common cold to pneumonia,” Rockwell said.

Even though he had decided he could be helpful serving in a medical capacity during the war, Rockwell refused to register for the draft after the Selective Service Act of 1948 required it. He had received an honorable discharge from the Army, but now he was sentenced to 13 months in jail after pleading no contest. He and three other Quaker men were paroled after four months.

When he finished his sentence, Rockwell and a group of Quakers decided to leave the United States. Costa Rica won out over other Central American countries, Rockwell said, because of its peacefulness and because of a positive report from two scouts who were sent to tour several countries.

“The rich were not as rich and the poor not as poor,” Rockwell said.

The Quakers chose Monteverde in particular because of the high elevation and the sizable area of relatively flat land. Another Quaker scouting group  first saw Monteverde on April 19, 1951, which the Quakers now celebrate as Monteverde Day.

“They had come up through the lowlands where everything was dry and brown to the mountains where everything was green and lush, the cattle were fat and the forest was wet,” Rockwell said. “Looks like the place for us.”

Fast facts on Quaker settlement of Monteverde

  • Seven of the original 11 Quaker families were from Fairhope, Ala., and the rest were from other places in the United States.
  • When the Quakers arrived in Monteverde, about 500 Ticos lived in the area, Rockwell said. Now, 8,000 do.
  •  The Guacimal Land Company owned much of the Monteverde land. The Costa Rican government granted the company the land because it wanted to build a hydroelectric power plant. Some individual Ticos also owned a portion of the land as homesteads they had cleared and farmed to earn title to it.
  • The land cost about $12.50 per acre, Rockwell said.
  • The Quakers deeded individual plots of land for farming to families based on what they could afford. The only commonly held land was the meetinghouse and the land set aside to protect the watershed.
  • The Quakers decided on cheese production as a source of income. They created a corporation to manage the operation, with Quakers as the shareholders. Now, shareholders must be residents of the area, employees of the corporation or milk suppliers – in fact, milk suppliers must own shares in the company.
  • When the factory first opened in 1953, Quaker Oats containers were used as molds for the cheese.
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