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Discovering the History of Meeman Biological Station – Latvian Refugees at Meeman Farm

by Cheryl A. Goudie, Program Director
Meeman Biological Station

It was a chance encounter at a meeting that started the research (isn’t it always?). Dr. Christopher Vanags (a geology professor at Vanderbilt) asked if I had mentioned “Meeman?”. He was stunned to hear that name because his father, aunt and uncle, grandmother and great-grandfather, all WWII refugees from Latvia, had worked and lived on “Meeman Farm”. Surprised to have made this amazing connection with the past and not having known about this part of Meeman Biological Station (MBS) history, I made my way to the 4th floor “Special Collections” archives of the University library to research Edward J. Meeman’s donated papers. Among his meticulous records were several items that mentioned different members of the Vanags family.

After sharing some of the findings with Chris and his family (and all of us wanting to know more!), he set up a meeting with one of the few living persons who could provide a first-hand account of life on Meeman Farm as it was in the 1950’s – his 99-year-old grandmother, Mrs. Dzidra Vanags Berzins. Her family and friends call her “Laima”. Before the meeting, I consulted with Dr. Charles Crawford, Director of the Office of Oral History Research, for tips on how to conduct and record an oral history, as I knew this would be no ordinary conversation.

We talked outdoors on a beautiful western Pennsylvania day for about 2.5-hours. Laima first recounted harrowing stories of near-misses and close to death encounters as she and several family members (including her father and three
young children) endured the First Soviet Invasion of Latvia, then the German Invasion (where German soldiers commandeered parts of her home and barn for use during their occupation), and then finally their escape to the Baltic Sea during the Second Soviet Invasion. They went from there to Berlin, Germany and spent three years in a Displaced Persons Camp in the zone occupied by the Americans. While there, she tried to find the whereabouts of her husband, who had been forcibly conscripted into the German army, but learned later he had died. After securing paperwork and haggling with authorities about which family members would be allowed to leave, they were finally approved to relocate in the United States. They arrived in New Orleans, along with about 800 other Latvians, on a returning troop transport ship (not the most luxurious accommodations!) and
about 200 of them travelled by train to a refugee settlement in Senatobia, Mississippi. Senatobia was the childhood home of US Army commander, Col. A.T. Callicott, who owned a cotton plantation and who personally sponsored many Latvians for relocation to rural Mississippi to work on local farms.

Mr. Meeman had previously employed Latvians on his “forest farm”, so he knew they were honest and hard-working people. When Laima landed an interview with Mr. Meeman, she and her father (Peter Sauleskalns, an educator who had earlier founded an agricultural college in Latvia) were both hired. They worked at Meeman Farm for about nine years (~1950-1959). Laima worked around the house, cleaning and preparing meals for Mr. Meeman, his sister Gertrude and his brother Benjamin while her father tended the cattle and improved the fields for grazing. Laima told about the many guests that came to the house, individually and to Mr. Meeman’s parties, to curry favor or trade opinions with the editor of the Memphis Press-Scimitar, including such notables as Tennessee Senators Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore, Sr. Mr. Meeman told Laima to keep the doors to the kitchen open and to listen closely to what was being said by the guests, as she was trying to learn English and he thought the conversations would help. Her children, Intis, Peter and Anna, became part of the Meeman “family” and were welcomed and participated in events at their home, at work on the farm and during parties. Mr. Meeman helped with their education at the nearby E.E. Geeter School and later paid for college tuition. Among many other snippets she told during our conversation, Laima said the music of Beethoven and Bach were often playing when Mr. Meeman was home, she twice encountered (and escaped!) what she thought was a mountain lion on the trails around the farm, and that Kudzu was present, even back then!

Mr. Meeman left quite a legacy, not only of his tangible gifts (Meeman Biological Station and Meeman Journalism Building at The University of Memphis and The Center for Lifelong Learning at Rhodes College), but in his philanthropy that included helping Latvian refugees return to a normal life. A monument was erected in 2004 (left) to recognize and commemorate the contributions the Latvian refugees made to the culture and society of Senatobia, Mississippi. Mr. Meeman is equally deserving of such a tribute and the recently completed Conceptual Master Plan for Development of Meeman Biological Station includes a River Center and Meeman Museum to illustrate his significant contributions to the region. His relationship with the Latvian refugees who worked on “forest farm” will certainly be part of that story.

Meeman Biological Station is the University’s 623-acre natural resource asset on the 3rd Chickasaw Bluff in northwest Shelby County. MBS was bequeathed to the University in 1967 following the death of Edward J. Meeman, newspaper editor and avid conservationist, who was instrumental in development of Great Smokey Mountains National Park and Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park. The Deed of Conveyance designated Mr. Meeman’s home as the Edward J. Meeman Conference Center (to be used for small meetings and conferences and as a get-away from our urban campus) and the farm and forested lands were to be used for education and research. MBS is a center in the Department of Biological Sciences and its faculty and students are the Station’s primary users. To learn more visit Meeman Biological Station.

My sincere thanks to Chris Vanags, Sandra Vanags (Peter’s wife), Leva Berzins (Laima’s daughter), and Laima Berzins for adding content and context to this history. The audiotape and transcript of our conversation will be added to the MBS website and reposited in the Office of Oral History Research.

 

 

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