Gunderson, Jeff

MARVIN ROCKWELL had already done it once before-during World War II. He refused to be a soldier and cam’ a rifle, but he did enlist as a medical technician in the Army. For this service to his country, Rockwell’s conscience paid dearly. A Quaker from Fairhope, Alabama, Rockwell was opposed to war of any kind and for any reason, and yet he had sacrificed those beliefs to aid his country in its time of need. Soon after the war, Rockwell received notice that he must register with the U.S. Selective Service, presenting him with a moral dilemma. He decided that he would not compromise his principles again.

Rockwell, nephews Leonard Rockwell and Howard Rockwell (known as Howard Junior), and friend Wilford “Wolf Guindon decided to take a stand. Registering with the U.S. Selective Service in effect sanctioned war, and as Quakers, these men would not do it.

The four were part of a community with roots in Alabama tracing back to 1910 when Quakers from Iowa and Ohio settled in Fairhope. The Fairhope Monthly Meeting, the foundation for the local Quaker membership, was established in 1919. The community had flourished for more than a generation by the time these men made their fateful decision.

Guindon and the Rockwells wrote letters to the local draft board in Foley, Alabama, explaining their reasons for refusal in 1948. In October of that year, the four were arrested and put on trial for refusing to register for the peacetime draft. At the trial Marvin Rockwell defended his decision, telling U.S. District Judge John McDuffey, “Your Honor, I was in the army in the last war. I was in Europe and the Caribbean and I saw what terrible things war can do. I feel that it is my duty to show as many people as possible how wrong war is and to show a way of combating this wrong which we have.” The four defendants enjoyed the support of their community. Hubert Mendenhall, a local dairy farmer and Quaker leader, spoke on behalf of his friends on trial, saying, “The decision these boys have reached is the result of their church and home training. It has been the stand of our religious group for some three hundred years not to take part in any war or preparation for war.”

Unfortunately, the men did not sway Judge McDuffey. He told the four Quakers, along with a courtroom full of their family and friends, “If you like your country then you should obey its laws. And if you don’t like it then you ought to move out.” The judge concluded by sentencing Guindon and the Rockwells to one year and one day in a federal prison in Tallahassee, Florida.

Once the Quakers arrived at the prison, Rockwell noticed that “the other inmates didn’t know what to think of us. They couldn’t believe we were in prison for that reason.” Fortunately for the Quakers, their good behavior earned them an early parole, only four months and one day after their sentences began. But during their time in prison the conscientious objectors considered the judge’s final words. Perhaps the United States was no longer the right place for them. By the time they left prison, other members of Fairhope’s Quaker community were entertaining the idea of leaving their homeland. Several families began discussing the best place to establish a new home.

The Quakers considered Canada briefly, but decided against the cold climate. Mexico’s climate was more inviting, but it was rejected because of land ownership restrictions. They ruled out Australia or New Zealand as too far from those friends and family who wished to remain in Alabama. A solution finally presented itself when Hubert and Mildred Mendenhall toured Central America in May of 1950. They were intrigued by the nation of Costa Rica, with its stable economic and social systems, a large middleclass population, and friendly people. But what really sold the Mendenhalls was the fact that Costa Rica had eliminated its military following a 1948 revolution. When the couple returned to Alabama, they excitedly shared their findings with the Quaker community. It was unanimous; the group would create a new community in Costa Rica.

Thirty-one Alabama Quakers, most of whom had known no other home than Alabama, made the difficult decision to leave their lives and jobs in Fairhope. Choosing to emigrate from the South reflected a deep conviction in their beliefs-it meant leaving behind relatives and close friends. An October 9, 1950, article published in TIME magazine covering the Quakers’ imminent departure quoted Hubert Mendenhall: “The sense of values in this country are becoming more materialistic all the time…. In Costa Rica we can only hope to make a modest living, but it will not be directly tied in with a military economy.”

They began to prepare for the voyage of a lifetime. They sent household goods to New Orleans, where they would be shipped to Costa Rica. Most of the Quakers traveled by air to the Costa Rican capital of San Jose to await the arrival of those traveling by land. Marvin, Howard, and Leonard Rockwell traveled with a small group overland in jeeps and trucks. The grueling journey took them through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and eventually into Costa Rica. They encountered customs hassles at borders, while treacherous jungle roads and river crossings required them to use planks and chains. At times, the roads were so waterlogged they were forced to hack a route through the bush. Driving conditions were so rough near the end, it took a month to cover an eighteen-mile stretch between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. “We left on November 4,1950, and arrived in Costa Rica on February 4, 1951. It took three months to the day,” recalled Rockwell.

The pioneering group stayed temporarily near the outskirts of San Jose. After an intense search for land, they bought thirty-four-hundred acres from the Guacimal Land Company in the central highlands near the small town of Santa Elena. Their land lay at an elevation of forty-six-hundred feet, twenty-five miles up a steep and narrow ox-cart trail. They spent weeks digging out unstable sections of the trail to make it passable for motor vehicles. Then, with help from oxen fastened to their jeeps, they powered up the mountain, introducing the first motor vehicles to the area.

The Quakers subdivided their land for individual families and constructed several homes and a meetinghouse. They began to get to know their Costa Rican neighbors and to adjust to life in their new home. “The locals living in the area received us very well and at the same time, wondered about these arriving gringos,” said Rockwell. They used their knowledge of farmingmany had been farmers in Alabama-and planted crops such as corn, beans, potatoes, and coffee, which could be easily transported on the rough roads. Rockwell later recalled, “We thought we were going to show these locals a thing or two about farming. We ended up learning more from them. The soil conditions are much different in the highlands of Costa Rica as compared to Alabama.” The group also purchased fifty purebred heifer cows and began cheese production. A cheese factory still operates in the area today. They named their new home “Green Mountain,” which translates to the name by which the area is known today-Monteverde.

The Quakers preserved over thirteen-hundred acres of their land at the headwaters of the Guacimal River to protect the quality of their water supply. In 1972 visiting biologist George Powell recognized the significance of the ecosystems in and around this preserved area where merging climates from Pacific- and Caribbean-facing slopes help create unique and abundant biodiversity in what is known as a cloud forest. After developing a strong concern for the establishment of protected lands, Powell found like-minded support in Wolf Guindon, one of the original jailed Quakers. On the surface it seemed like an unlikely alliance-Guindon was a chainsaw salesman at the time. But after purchasing the rights to protect over eight hundred acres of forest, the two began promoting the significance of the ecosystems. Their efforts proved successful when the Tropical Science Center accepted ownership and administrative responsibility for the protected lands, creating the Monteverde Biological Cloud Forest Reserve. Then, in 1975, the watershed the Quakers had preserved was annexed to the Reserve. More acreage was added over the years; today the reserve is acclaimed as one of the most spectacular and diverse nature sanctuaries in the Western Hemisphere.

The Alabama Quakers’ willingness to leave their home for an unknown and strange land is a testament to the strength of their religious convictions. Just as they have preserved important biological areas in Costa Rica, so have they done with their unique way of life. Decades after leaving the United States, the Quakers from Fairhope continue to be an integral part of the Monteverde community, living with clear consciences, in accordance with their beliefs.

Jeff Gunderson is a writer who currently lives in Portland, Oregon.

Copyright University of Alabama Press Summer 2005

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