GRECIA, COSTA RICA: HISTORY OF GRECIA
If you ask most people they will tell you that they have a real connection to the place that they call home. However, interestingly enough, in our rushed, modern society we know very little about the history of the town or area in which we live. I have always been a history buff and find the past interesting and often foretelling of the future.
For me, being able to look back and see how our predecessors were able to survive and build thriving communities out of harsh forest and rugged terrain with minimal resources gives me a great appreciation for the easy life I live today. The difficulties of their living conditions makes me grateful of how easy our modern lives have become. Living in a paradise like Costa Rica, we are surrounded by nature which is the real attraction of this dynamic country but behind all the natural beauty, each little village in this diverse country has a story waiting to be told. Take Grecia for example. Grecia was officially founded on April 27, 1838 and declared a city on August 6, 1903, but what more do we know about Grecia?
As it turns out, before the early 1800’s, the majority of the Central Valley to west of Alajuela and the Poas River was uncharted territory. At that time, the major settlements in Costa Rica were Cartago, San Jose, Heredia and Alajuela. Between 1780 and 1820 the Costa Rican government began offering land grants to settlers who would venture into virgin territory and tame the wild jungle transforming them into inhabitable settlements. The offer of “free land” was a big incentive for those farmers living in San Jose, Heredia and Alajuela who were in search of new, fertile ground to cultivate crops and forge a living. That was especially true for those wanting to invest in the new cash crop to Costa Rica “el grano de oro” or grain of gold, coffee.
The new settlers that began migrating to the area that would become Grecia included families with surnames such as Alfaro, Alavarado, Araya, Bolanos, Castro, Hidalgo, Salas, Serrano and Zamora. By the beginning of the 1820‘s these families along with others began calling the area west of the Poas River home. On October 28, 1828 it was these same settlers that applied to the central government of Costa Rica to be recognized as a township. However, in true Costa Rican fashion, it would take another 10 years for the 1100 inhabitants who were then living in 176 homes to be granted “township” status.
In 1838 with the new designation of township, the residents of Grecia were able to build a church. Between 1839 and 1840 the town built a simple adobe structure with a thatched roof in the area where Grecia’s central market is now located. This structure would serve as the first house of worship. As the town grew, so did the need for a larger church. Successive structures were built first out of wood, then concrete, all of which were destroyed by natural disasters. The wood church was destroyed fire. The town rebuilt using concrete only for it to be severely devastated by an earthquake in 1888. By 1890, the townspeople were disheartened and sought the council of Bishop Thiel who suggested building a church that was disaster proof. Using “new technology” the entire structure would be constructed out of metal. The search was on to find someone that could provide such a structure and a company from Belgium was contracted to build the red metal sanctuary that we know today. By 1897 Grecia’s iconic red metal church and trademark symbol, was complete.
How did Grecia get its name?
As you find with many “stories” in history that lack documentation, there are often varying versions of the tale. More times than not, the truth lies somewhere between these stories. In the case of Grecia, there are at least two versions of how the town was named. The first story states that the residents of the area had a meeting in 1826 to decide on what to call their new home. At the time the area was known as “Los Potreros del Puas” which roughly translates to “Pastures of barbs”. At the meeting one of the residents, Juan Lara Zamora suggested that the area be called Grecia in honor of the European country that had won it’s independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821. The residents of Grecia were creating a new life for themselves much like the people of Greece had done with their new found independence. Another story says that the same Juan Lara Zamora was the owner of a large farm that was named Grecia which had become well know in the area. Everyone living in “Grecia” and the neighboring towns referred to the area as Grecia because of the fame Mr. Zamora’s farm had gained. Today as you take the exit to Grecia off the Pan America Highway, you are greeted with a collection of Corinthian columns leaving no doubt you are in fact entering Grecia.
At one time, Grecia was the largest township in all of Costa Rica, representing 80% (4500 square kilometers) of the land mass that comprised the province of Alajuela. Grecia stretched west to Narajno and as far north as San Carlos, Upala and Los Chiles near the Nicaraguan border. As the years passed Grecia would lose territory and become smaller as other towns such as Naranjo, San Carlos, Upala and Los Chiles sprung up and became independent. Today Grecia covers only about 396 square kilometers of land.
Coffee and Sugar Cane
The fertile lands around Grecia were key to the towns development and eventual success. Between 1826 and 1832 farmers began planting coffee near the Rosales, Pilas and Poro’s rivers. Due to the crops success, coffee cultivation would quickly spread to the surrounding areas of San Roque, Los Angeles, San Isidro, Santa Gertrudis and San Juan. The successful cultivation of coffee in the area encouraged the continued settlement of Grecia.
During the second half of the 19th century, sugar cane would become the second important crop for the development of Grecia. With the wealth created by coffee crops, capital was available in 1886-1887 to import new hydraulic mills from England and the United States to create the most modern sugar processing plant in all of Costa Rica. The new mill, named Victoria, was owned by the Fernandez-Hidalgo family. Through the years the sugar mill has been sold several times and even confiscated by the government during WWll. However almost 130 years later the mill still exists as CoopeVictoria. If you drive around Grecia, you realize that almost 200 years after the first coffee and sugar cane were planted, these two crops have not waned and are still a vital part of the local economy.
From their humble beginnings, the people of Grecia valued education. By 1842 the townspeople had contracted a teacher named Nicolas Cardenas, who educated the local children in the room of an old house. By June of 1869 a grade school was established and in 1872 the house of Don Juan Dengo was purchased, becoming the home of the Eulogia Ruiz school for girls. By 1887 only two teachers were teaching 155 students who came from all areas of Grecia. As the years passed, more schools were built, one for girls and one for boys. Today Grecia can proudly say it has a highly educated population with many of Costa Rica’s most well know Universities offering educational opportunities in the town.
In my humble opinion I feel that it is important for us to look back at our history and realize where we have come from thus giving us a better vision of where we should be headed in future. As I drive around the hills of Grecia, I can reflect on and appreciate all the hard work of those who came before me giving their blood, sweat and tears to create the beautiful town that exists today. From the hills that are still dotted with coffee plantations some 200 years after the first settlers came to the area, to the Victora sugar mill, which still churns out sugar today and the red metal church that is the symbol of Grecia, one can feel the pride of a town that is vibrant and welcoming. I am sure that Grecia’s founders still wander these hills, tending to their crops, looking out across the valley with a sense of fulfillment, knowing that they were pioneers of a vast, virgin and untamed territory.
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