For conscience sake, US Quakers settle in Costa Rica

Even when the FBI agent came to his house, unable to understand why a young man would rather go to jail than do his patriotic duty, Eston Rockwell, a 19 -year-old Quaker, refused to change his mind.

''I felt like my protest was against the draft act as a whole,'' he said.

For that protest in 1949 a federal judge in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, sentenced him to 18 months in jail for refusing to register for the first peacetime draft.

This may have started Eston off on a jail term - he served nine months - but it, and similar acts of conscience, also started a a different movement. Eston and other Quakers soon abandoned the United States in search of a more peaceful place to live.

In 1951 they found that new home in Monteverde, a mountaintop community straddling the continental divide in Costa Rica, the Central American country which abolished its Army in 1949. Today, the Quakers continue to live here, grown and changed, but still peaceful, an American colony of pacifists in the heart of troubled Central America.

Toward the end of 1950 the Mobile (Ala.) Register carried a Page 1 story on the Quakers. ''Approximately 25 Baldwin County Quakers shortly will move to Costa Rica, where they hope to be free from military service and from the necessity of making their living in a war economy.''

Eston joined the Alabama group, which was made up mainly of his cousins. Together they set out on what they knew would be a test of their survival skills as well as their ideals. ''I think I was ready to strike out on my own. I think I was looking forward to it. It didn't seem terribly hard,'' said Eston, who arrived Nov. 22, 1950.

The Quakers bought 3,000 acres, set aside 1,000 as watershed and divided the rest into farm plots. Individual families bought the farms. Some had to buy out squatters they found on their land.

The original settlers ranged in age from 1 to 81. There were nine families - 7 were already Quakers and the other two families became Quakers when they arrived. Of the 36 members, 23 were Rockwells, a Quaker clan with branches in Iowa and Alabama.

At first some settlers lived in army surplus tents with platform floors, and others lived in small, cramped squatters' shacks. Later each family built its own house, helped by the whole community. They also built community buildings, such as the school where the children studied during the week and the families prayed on Sundays. And they bulldozed new roads, linking the pasture lands with their thick hardwood trees to the farmhouses along a network of dirt lanes.

In 1953 the Quakers began cheese production. ''We needed something that wouldn't spoil during the days it took to get to market,'' said Marvin. The ride from their mountain perch to the paved road (some 25 miles) could still take two days in the rainy season.

In those early days, the men occasionally got off the mountain for business, but the women would leave only once a year, to go to the dentist and for some entertainment, ''a movie or the zoo,'' recalled one old-timer.

Many were happier that way. ''Some really wanted to be isolated. They didn't even want to see a Life magazine,'' said Doris Campbell, one of the original settlers.

Inevitably, though, the community changed. The road up the mountain was improved. Children grew up and married. The town grew larger and more disparate. The cheese factory proved a success and Monteverde cheese became known throughout Costa Rica. The Quakers' mountaintop refuge was found to border on one of the world's richer ecological sites, a reserve now open to biologists and the public. Monteverde became a tourist attraction. Like the Japanese and Americans, Costa Ricans come to see this people who, as one Costa Rican newspaper headline put it, live without tobacco, liquor, or the lottery.

Monteverde continues to be pacific, no small achievement in that tumultuous area. But its membership has changed. The community has slid from homogeneity to hodgepodge. Of the heads of the original nine Quaker families, five have left or died. Today the community is a melting pot of Seventh-day Adventists, retirees, guru followers, and assorted new age seekers (with hot tub and a visiting acupuncturist). The Quaker community has grown to 150 people, but they are no longer a majority.

''You can't keep anything out,'' said Doris Campbell.

Now when the older Quakers get together, they share memories with a generation for whom home has always been Monteverde. The early ideals have now passed into lore to be shared at least once a year on Monteverde Day, the spring event when the community celebrates its founding.

Some regret the changes with a certain nostalgia. ''It was like a family back then,'' remembered one. The original settlers feel they have demonstrated - as Monteverde demonstrates today - that with the proper energy it is possible to live by one's conscience. ''I think in that you'd have to call it a success,'' concluded an original settler.

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