MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica — In an airy classroom at the Monteverde Institute, Marvin Rockwell unspools unexpected, poignant stories to a rapt audience of 11 journalists. He sits with legs crossed, his khaki pants exposing matching khaki socks. He’s wearing a large bright purple corduroy shirt, open and unbuttoned. Underneath, a pink, striped shirt.
We’re a diverse group from the Missouri School of Journalism, and when we signed up for the Costa Rica field-reporting trip, we didn’t expect to meet a character as enthralling as Marvin.
He’s 92 now, but as a younger man he and a handful of likeminded Quaker settlers founded a new life in the small Costa Rican town of Monteverde.
Rockwell is a man of many stories. What follows is a brief synopsis of his history and a selection of anecdotes and vignettes from our conversation.
Patriarch of Monteverde’s Quaker community reflects on decades of change
Marvin Rockwell was 28 years old when his 18-month prison sentence was finished. Eight days later, he set off for Costa Rica from his hometown of Fairhope, Ala..
The year was 1950. Rockwell and three other Quakers had served about one-third of their prison sentence for refusing to register for the draft. Violence was against their religion, but failing to register for the draft was against the law.
“We and others in the meeting got to talking about it and thought, ‘Well, we ought to move out of the states,’” he said.
Canada was too cold. New Zealand and Australia were too far. The group started considering countries in Latin America — one couple even went out to visit. They decided on Costa Rica.
“Which had abolished its own army in 1948,” Rockwell said with a grin.
A mere eight days after their sentence was finished, Rockwell was part of a group of 44 Quakers from Alabama that set off for Costa Rica. Some flew. Rockwell and his family drove. The journey from Fairhope to San Jose took three months — including one month just to get to the first town in Costa Rica from the border with Nicaragua. It was an era before the Pan-American highway had been built. The Quakers from Alabama made roads when they found none.
The group settled in a highland agricultural region that came to be known as Monteverde. They improved the roads, introduced electricity and built a school. They also intermarried with the local Costa Ricans. Rockwell and his wife had three children and adopted two more.
The Quaker community has continued to grow. Over the years Quaker families from the United States have come and gone from Monteverde. Today about 90 Quakers live in the area, and more than 100 students are enrolled in the Quaker’s bilingual school, Rockwell said.
The cheese factory the community set up produced 350 pounds of cheese in it’s first batch. Today the factory produces 8,000 pounds in one day.
“The last couple years, there’s been at least two families that moved from the United States to Monteverde to send their kids to our school,” Rockwell said.
Rockwell is one of just six of the original settlers still living. He said the biggest change he’s noticed over the years is the number of people. When the community arrived here in 1951, just 500 Costa Ricans lived in the region. Today about 5,000 people live here, and up to 200,000 tourists visit annually.
“I expect us to be around for many years after I’m gone,” Rockwell said.
The airstrip that never was
Once Marvin Rockwell and the other early settlers of Monteverde had struggled over the undomesticated lands and begun to set stake in the humble country, they thought travel could be easier if they added an airstrip.
It ended up as a pie-in-the-sky idea.
There was an airplane (about the size of a crop-duster), but the plan never panned out — even after the runway had been carved out of the mostly unsettled grounds in 1950s-era Monteverde.
In the northern region of Costa Rica, Monteverde is a lush, mountainous Eden. The rounded peaks are submerged in the clouds and frequented by the gusts of wind. It’s much cooler here than the lower lands of the rest of the country, but the locals welcome the dip in temperature for the elevated views.
Only 500 Costa Ricans lived here when Rockwell and the others arrived.
Setting up their Quaker-Utopia in Central America was rough, and the execution of the airstrip was no different.
Wind aggressively blows over the mountains, and the elevation that attracted the Quakers there in the first place created an effect that Rockwell thought might have pushed the little plane to the ground.
The runway added to the dilemma: it was short and ended abruptly at the edge of a cliff.
Rockwell’s lips tighten into a mischievous smile with a sly sideways glance and a chuckle.
“We decided there would be no airstrip in Monteverde,” he said.
Even though the airstrip was never put into use in the tiny settlement, it goes down in history as if it were.
Right after the construction of the strip, geological surveyors were in the midst of taking aerial photos over Central America, and part of the project was to map Costa Rica.
All of the photos taken at the time show modest Monteverde as having an airstrip, Rockwell said. Today, the nearest airport is still Juan Santamaria International Airport in San Jose, about two hours away.
Where there is no doctor
When Marvin Rockwell was drafted during World War II, he refused to carry a rifle and was shunted into the medical corps instead. At the time, he could not have known how well that training would serve him, albeit in a place far from the theater of war.
When Rockwell arrived in Monteverde in 1951, he found himself to be the only individual in the area trained in medicine, both among the 44 Quakers in their group and the roughly 500 Costa Ricans living nearby.
Rockwell still vividly remembers the first Costa Rican he attended to. An 8-year-old boy had thwacked himself in the foot with an axe. But Rockwell had run out of anesthetic, so he stitched the child together without the benefit of painkillers.
“I was called on for all manner of medical problems,” he said. Although the settlement’s strategic location placed it above the range of mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and yellow fever, Rockwell still encountered a broad assortment of ailments.
“I sewed up innumerable cuts and injuries,” he said, not to mention mending broken bones and nursing those afflicted by illnesses ranging from the common cold to pneumonia.
His medical duties extended beyond those of a more urban doctor. After running out of serum during a hepatitis outbreak in 1952, Rockwell drove 13 hours round-trip to retrieve a new supply. And he ran a bare-bones laboratory in the settlement. With a small microscope and a hand-crank centrifuge, he was able to pinpoint his patients’ pathologies.
Eventually, a registered nurse moved down and joined the settlement. Rockwell ceded his medical duties to her and turned his attention to the cheese factory.
Weathered hands, faded photos
After Marvin Rockwell finishes yet another presentation chronicling Monteverde’s history, he pulls out his collection of personal photographs to show those of the audience interested, and nearly all are. His hands, incredibly worn from an impressive 92-year run, shake as he picks up each photo to find the corresponding memory.
Almost six decades of living under the Costa Rican sun have freckled the back of Rockwell’s hands into a purplish-brown, with pale, chalky bruises showing the even more sensitive spots. He sifts through his pictures at his own speed: deliberate.
“That was the last jaguar in this area,” he said, pointing to a mass of spotted fur in a black-and-white picture.
The jaguar’s body lays strewn across the grass, still snarling. It killed a neighbor’s pig the night before, so a couple of the town’s men rounded up their dogs and rifles to track down the perpetrator, Rockwell said matter-of-factly.
Later, he picked up a color headshot of a toddler with plump cheeks and wispy brown hair. It was one of Rockwell’s children, and though he had run through the names of family members both immediate and extended throughout his speech, this was the first mention of this son.
Rockwell used two hands to steady the young face in the photograph before explaining to the audience hovering over his shoulders: his name was Antony, and he drowned in a nearby river when he was 3.
Not all the pictures are tragic. Rockwell smiled as he explained the photo of a shoeless boy standing in the town’s cheese factory. It’s his nephew, aged no more than 8, looking at one of the first of the factory’s many batches.
Earlier, Rockwell laughed when he said their original products were stored in repurposed Quaker Oats cans, and there they are, six of them, resting in a rack. It was the factory’s opening day, and several girls lined along the wall, no doubt smiling in part because they got time off school for the occasion.
After Rockwell finished revisiting the photo collection and making his leave, the only help he needed was from his cane. In a couple steps, he was already off the Monteverde Institute’s patio, making his way down the property’s steep hill, the same terrain he learned to navigate over 60 years ago when he first arrived.