2002 email correspondence between Loren P Meissner and Marty (a grand-daughter of Aunt Lillian, Manly’s sister). Marty was getting ready to go on a bird watching tour to Boquete and Volcán Barú, in the highlands of the Chiriquí Province of Panama, not far from some land the Meissner family had owned, and she wanted any background I could give her.

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13 Dec 2002

(Loren's reply to Marty's initial query, asking where the Meissner family had lived in Panama:)

My mom used to say they called their Panama place “La Elvira.” I have always thought this was just a private name for the little farm (jungle clearing). But today I went to Expedia on-line and found a map of Chiriquí and zoomed in a bit. It shows a road from Davíd going northeast to Boquete – a name I remember – and a railroad more or less parallel to this road. Near the railroad is a town called El Banco which I think might be about where I expected to find Porterillos. So their place would be west of there toward the dots on the map labeled La Planta or Buena Vista, but maybe not quite that far, maybe closer to another dot labeled Paraíso.

So I clicked on the “Print this map” button, and when the Printable version came up, Paradise had disappeared from this version, and in its place is a dot labeled “La Elvira.” (!!) Who knows? The place where your grandma once lived might be pretty close to there. It seems to be in about the right location anyway, from what little I remember.

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Before Panama, the family (including Lillian) had lived in Oaxaca, Mexico. If you ever want to try and pin down the Oaxaca location, I wonder if you have seen a copy of the newspaper that Vivian Foley (daughter of Uncle Albert) sent me. I made a lot of copies and I still have some. I gave them to folks who came to our 50th anniversary in 1999 and to the Reunion this year, so maybe Elaine or Dawn or Eleanor has one. If you can’t get your hands on a copy, tell me where to send it and I’ll mail you one.

The closest town to their place in Oaxaca seems to be Medina. The paper I’m talking about is a promotional published by the land developer, and I have two different issues of the paper that Loretta sent to her son Albert from Oaxaca. She seems to have thought she could get some of the older children who had stayed in the States to come and join them there. The earlier one of the two issues has a little story about the arrival of the Meissner family at the settlement. And it reassures everyone that rumors of an impending Mexican revolution are overblown, and anyway it wouldn’t affect them in such an out-of-the-way corner of Oaxaca.

Also I assume you have a copy of the “Refugees” picture that appeared in McClure’s Magazine in 1914. A lot of folks in our family have copies, and it’s at my web site in one of the “Rogues Gallery” documents. My paper copy has “McClure’s Magazine, Sept 1914” written on it, but some other folks think they found it in an earlier month’s edition. I found the McClure’s in the library at UC Berkeley once, when I was going to school there in 1949, and I assume it can still be found in major libraries. The picture appeared in a story about the Mexican revolution at the time, but the story was mostly about the Rio Grande border area, and the picture was totally unrelated.

I think the “escape” from Oaxaca was about April 1914. There are some stories on the Internet about the Pancho Villa revolution that was going on in Mexico at that time. As I heard it from my dad, relations between the US and Mexico were deteriorating badly and the US wanted all their citizens out of there. The US Marines sent a ship to Vera Cruz to help evacuate US citizens. The Mexican officials were cooperative and told the folks at this settlement there was a train of boxcars leaving from some place near Medina in a few hours for Vera Cruz and they could get on it if they were there in time. So they had to gather up what they could and leave. Uncle Paul wrote a story before he died, which mentions that after the American refugees got to Vera Cruz or somewhere else near the coast, they were held in some sort of prison and threatened, before they were released to go on the American ship.

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One question that keeps coming up in my mind is what they were doing in Mexico and Panama in the first place. You can get some insight from the story that Uncle Adolph (i.e. Adolph Elmer Meissner) wrote, on my web site. Adolph (my grandfather) and Loretta were married 1883 in Wisconsin (shotgun style – Dillie was born only a few months later) and they decided to follow his older brother Ernest to Oregon. They found this nice place along the Rogue River (there is a map with Adolph’s story that pinpoints the location pretty well) and several of their children were born there (not including Lillian) and they had a fairly decent life, but aside from subsistence farming their only outside income came from selling produce to a mine that was pretty far away. Maybe the biggest mistake of their life was moving to a different farm, closer to the mine but otherwise a lot worse situation (where Lillian was born). After that nothing really went right. They moved to eastern Washington and then got the idea that WA and OR were too cold anyway and decided to try Texas. But they went to several places in Texas and didn’t find anything suitable, so they somehow heard about this Oaxaca land development and decided to move there.

One thing you’ll notice in the Medina promo newspaper is the glowing reports of how many pineapples or oranges etc can be grown on an acre in Oaxaca. True of course, but the thing they kept forgetting to mention is: farmers have to sell their crops to make a living. Nobody in Oaxaca would pay money for fruit they could pick off a tree in their own back yard, and the shipping cost to Vera Cruz or Mexico City or anywhere would eat up all the profit. (They had the same problem to a lesser extent even when they were doing fairly well in Oregon.)

Loretta kept thinking (and the same again in Panama) that what the Tropics really needed was more American settlers – a very typical Colonialist attitude for the times. The weather was great (maybe a little rainy at times, and a few too many insects etc) and farming was very easy and it never got cold, but sometimes you got a bit lonely and missed all the comforts of Civilization, especially including schools for the children (see Loretta’s Panama letter).

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I think I know why my parents (Manly and Hazel) went to Panama. Hazel wanted to save the world, or as much of it as she could – that’s why she came from the Midwest to Los Angeles, to convert the Mexicans from the “evils” of the Catholic religion to the “true” Protestant faith, and she’d studied a little Spanish at the church institute in Anderson IN (“Church of God”: fundamentalist Protestant).

Meanwhile Manly had recently arrived in LA after living for several years in Panama, and his parents still owned this place in Panama and his mom (Loretta) had this idea about using it for a dairy ranch (see Loretta’s letter to the Church of God Mission Board). In 1923, Manly was 26 and he thought it might be time to get married, and he took a shine to Hazel when he met her at church. Hazel was 32 and not especially eager to get married, but not totally against it either. But Manly was kinda uncouth – as I recognized all my life, he had this major attitude that people shouldn’t judge him by how he looked or combed his hair or dressed, he’d rather be kind and helpful than handsome. Well, that’s not exactly it either – mainly he didn’t care much at all what people thought about him, he wanted to judge himself by his own standards. One adjective that springs boldly to mind is “eccentric.”

Hazel was living with her mother (long since widowed) in LA, and Grandma thought Manly wasn’t good enough for her daughter. (I knew her – she wasn’t such a great person herself, and no way classy, but she always thought she was better than Manly, and she was never subtle about it.) But Manly talked Hazel into marrying him – a big part of his argument was that the two of them could take up Loretta’s offer to set up a dairy ranch in Panama. (There’s more about this in the Reunion 2002 story about Manly.) They went there (late 1925) with a couple of heifers, which promptly died from some tropical disease – goats (or even llamas or yaks?) would probably have been a much better idea as a way to provide milk for the “natives.”

But Hazel was teaching Bible stories to the Indian kids and teaching them some English too. She knew everyone in the world needed to learn English – it was part of the inevitable “civilizing” process that the world needed so much. (Mega-colonialism!?) She had read the King James Bible a lot, so she knew God’s native language is English. And of course He’s a Protestant, too (a WASP?)

Hazel wasn’t expecting to have any kids, but after they’d been in Panama about a year she discovered she was pregnant, and she went to a hospital at Colon (Canal Zone) where Doris was born (April 1927). They decided they still wanted to live in Panama, but the little farm wasn’t providing quite enough to support the family now that there were three of them. So Manly found a job on another railroad that was being constructed near the Costa Rica border, and he came back to the farm every couple of weekends (as I gather). Less than a year later, Hazel’s pregnant again. (There’s a cute family story about Manly accusing her of having an affair with the Indian overseer at the farm, while he was away working on the railroad – part of this story is, that makes me half Panamanian. I think the funniest part is that I never heard the story till I was 60 years old.) Manly said no way could he support a family of four, so they came back to CA in Aug 1928 and I was born in Nov.

Loren

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14 Dec 2002 (from Marty):

Thank you for the information and insight. I too am motivated by the question as to why they moved to Oaxaca and Panama? Was it religious fervor? The pioneer spirit? Delusions of grandeur? Whatever, I am in awe. I’m afraid to walk out to my chicken coop at night! I remember going to your parents’ place in So. California when I was little. They had geese and a tortoise and pepper trees. It was quite an adventure to us.

I do have the Meissner family photo in Panama and from McClure’s magazine. I don’t have the paper you mentioned about the family arriving in Oaxaca. I will ask Aunt Elaine or Dawn for a copy. 

Thank you again for the info regarding the land in Panama. We will be spending time in Boquete and the highlands of the Chiriquí Province bird watching (our main reason for going to Panama). Even if I don’t find the land, I will be able to get a feel for it. My Grandma and her sister Edith used to speak fondly of their childhood there.

 Marty

Loren wrote back:

I think “religious fervor” as a motive would apply mostly to Hazel (my mom) – even Manly was no great religious fanatic – he “loved his fellowman” and especially Hazel but he had more of a “live and let live” attitude in terms of saving the world. In hindsight, we can now see that the great “missionary” spirit of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which my mom was following, was closely related to colonialism. The missionaries firmly believed they were obeying Jesus, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel ...” but they got a big ego trip from comparing themselves to the “less fortunate,” and incidentally helping to make the “third world” (though that term was not in their vocabulary) safe for (European / American) capitalism.

From what I have gathered about Loretta (mainly from her letters and from the story written by her son Adolph Elmer), I’d describe her motivation mainly as “greener pastures,” or maybe just plain discontent with the hard life of an early 20th century plain dirt farmer’s wife. But a lot of colonialism shows through in Loretta’s letters, too. She thinks the Tropics are a nice place to live (you’re never cold, crops grow lush, etc) and the Tropics would be a nice place for a lot of Americans to move to (oh, why can’t they see it??) – and then if enough Americans would come, Oaxaca or Panama would be even nicer than California – nothing against California you understand, but if the Tropics could just get civilized.... In today’s terms you might state her attitude something like this – “This Boquete (or Medina etc) is really a nice quaint little town, and the climate is nice, and the parrots and monkeys are cute (although sometimes maybe there's too much rain and bugs). Now if it only had a McDonalds and a Wal-Mart and maybe a Macy’s, and if the cell phone reception were better and if they had cable TV here, etc etc this would be a GREAT place to live, and then more Americans would surely come and...”

Especially after reading my Uncle Adolph Elmer’s autobiography, I’d say my grandparents (Adolph and Loretta) were mostly just trying to survive. You can see a lot of the same attitude in the letters of my great grandfather Friedrich Adolf Meissner (if you read all 370 or so pages!?!) – the 19th century and early 20th was a hard life for ordinary folks – i.e., the typical farm family.

“Subsistence farming” was always pretty much just that – most farmers were glad to get through from one year’s end to the next. I think your grandparents Earl Kellogg and Lillian had almost as hard a life on their farm in Michigan, but Earl had a “day job” (painting houses as I recall) that helped support the family. Sometimes they got in a reasonably bearable situation (like Adolph and Loretta on the farm by the Rogue River near Merlin OR) but if something went wrong (like, a few bad crop years in a row) they’d be tempted to try and do better, and go looking for a greener pasture somewhere else.

But “somewhere else” was never much better – all the really “good” farm land was already taken, long before 1900. Oregon and Washington had cold winters, Texas was too dry or had some other problem, Oaxaca was nice but lonely (and too far from produce markets) and then Pancho Villa came along. So when the “poor refugee” Meissner family were forced out of Mexico by the revolution in 1914 they came to California and lived near older daughter Dillie, till Panama beckoned in 1916.

Loretta opines in her letters from Panama that its main advantage over Mexico is US protection because the government is VERY interested in the canal (which in the 1920s was very important to the US economically – it’s hard to realize now how important it was then). But the kids had nowhere to go to school, and there was no milk. (Nor McDonalds nor cable TV etc??). So in 1922 they left Panama and moved back to California where most of their older children were already living, and then Loretta died in an auto accident in 1924 while out looking for another “greener pasture” in the Antelope Valley (Palmdale / Lancaster, CA).

Enough for now. Have a good bird watching tour.

Loren

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 POSTSCRIPT

As a boy I heard a lot about Panama from my parents. After all, they had come back to California just before I was born. For a long time, Dad (Manly) seemed very nostalgic about the beauties of the tropics.

I think Dad had come into ownership of the “plantation” when they lived there. (A guess: maybe after my grandma Loretta died, my grandpa Adolph decided to donate it to the “missionary cause.”) Anyway, when my parents moved to Mira Loma just before I was born, they sold the Panama property to somebody named Knight and spent the money building a house on Charles St. But after Mr Knight went to Panama and saw what he had bought, he wanted his money back. Dad couldn’t swing it, so his brothers (Charlie, Paul, Albert?) bought the property from Mr Knight. The depression arrived just about that time too, which made things hard for all the brothers. I think Charlie eventually bought out his brothers’ interests and ended up owning it, maybe clear up till he retired from his Panama job and came to live in CA.

In the early 1930s Dad enlarged the house on Charles St, and painted the ceiling of the “master bedroom” with splashes of colored stucco in a design he called “the Panama jungle.”

Mom (Hazel) told stories to me and my sister about life on “the place.” Life in the tropical uplands: the fauna and flora, different fruits to eat, monkeys and birds all around. The “rainy season” and the “dry season.” Going to Davíd for supplies was an all-day or overnight trip by horseback on a 20-mile (?) trail that mostly paralleled the rushing mountain streams flowing down from the Volcán, but required crossing the streams at several points. Eight or ten miles away at about their same elevation was a railroad station on the line from Davíd to Boquete, and a couple of “Anglo” families who lived along that road later sent Christmas cards regularly, from wherever they had gone when they left Panama. One of those families had a low-tech sugar factory where they squeezed cane in an oxen-powered mill and boiled it into cake. My parents also tried to explain to me how the locks on the Panama Canal worked, but I never understood till much later.