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Straight-Edge Sexauer: a radical non-conformist

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by Gordon Kennedy

It was December 7, 1941 and big news had reached the California coast. The Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and the nation was in a panic. President Franklin D. Roosevelt later issued a declaration of war, and within days thousands of young men were lining up to volunteer themselves for military duty.

The anti-Japan sentiments in California were very high, and after several weeks innocent Japanese citizens were rounded up and sent off to internment camps in places like Manzanar and Poston.

But the political authorities in Santa Barbara California didn’t wait a few weeks to arrest their number one target...they nailed him within a few hours of the big news.

Somewhere between the tree-houses in Quail Canyon and the five-block bicycle ride to the Natural Food Store at 31 East Victoria street, a pair of handcuffs were placed on the wrists of a German immigrant who had made Santa Barbara his home for over 32 years. Monday morning at his store there would be one to greet the carob pods, dried olives, dulse, or sapotes. No one to welcome the many customers at Santa Barbara’s first and (then) only health food store.

A Non-Conformist
The first time Hermann Sexauer was sent to an American prisoner camp was during the First World War when he refused to bear arms in defense of his adopted country. This time it was again Hermann’s radical non-conformity that made him the first person possibly in Central California to be arrested and interned.

Hermann Frederick Sexauer was born on March 4, 1883 in Teningen, Germany, where his family owned a flour mill. Home life was comfortable, but maybe too comfortable for Hermann. When he was 12 years old, in 1895, a new movement was blossoming. The Wandervogel (wandering birds/free spirits) began as a hiking club in a suburb of Berlin and included boys and girls aged mainly between 12-18, who sought communion with nature and the ancient folkspirit. Any teenage kid who came of age during this period in Germany was deeply impacted by the Wandervogel and several other groups with a similar philosophy.

Mere kids of 14 or 15 would put on a backpack, say goodbye to their parents, and then join a group of other teenagers to wander and camp around Germany for two or three months.

Such was the world that Hermann experienced as a youth. He traveled extensively and lived in many European countries, including Switzerland, Italy, and England. These adventures taught him a great deal about language, healing, lifestyle, and natural foods.

Welcome to America
With plans for a trip around the world, he left Germany in 1906 "to get away from the narrow-minded bourgeois at home, and to escape the stupidity and stifling influence of bureaucracy."

First he arrived in New York, remaining there for a few months, teaching Esperanto (an artificial international language based as far as possible on words common to the chief European languages) to many professional people, while turning down an offer as editor of an Esperanto section in the monthly magazine North American Review. "I was thoroughly tired of big cities, and wanted to get back to the soil, so I went to the land in Florida for a whole year."

After his time in Florida, he worked his way through the Southern states Westward until he arrived in California, where he studied forestry at Davis, then met his wife-to be at Berkeley. Hermann married Frieda Niedermuller in 1908, legally in a health food store in San Francisco. She was an artist and botanist who was trained in her native Germany, and later taught at a girls’ school.

Eventually they ended up moving down to Santa Barbara around 1910, later settling in Quail Canyon by 1916. Hermann’s plans to travel around the world were terminated while he adjusted to his new role as husband, then father of four children. He worked as a horticulturist and building craftsman who specialized in the construction of adobes.

On his bicycle he would cruise through town on his way to work foraging avocados, sapote, mulberries, carob, olives, etc. In an old advertisement from a vegetarian magazine of 1922, Hermann had mentioned the personal details about himself; one item included "raw foods." So finally, after so many cold winters in Germany, he was now living in Mediterranean America where all of these delicious fruits and vegetables were fresh and abundant.

With golden beaches and a towering backdrop of mountains, it is hard to imagine a more idyllic setting. But every Eden has its vipers, and Hermann’s problems began with the local power elite from the wealthy suburb of Montecito.

It seems that during this period, from the early 20th century until about World War II, Santa Barbara was run partly by the descendants of wealthy British families. Although Hermann lived in the U.K. for two years, had many English friends, and was secretary of the British Esperanto Association, his opinions about economics and politics were too controversial for the plutocrats. They made certain that this German had a rough time in paradise. It is also notable that Hermann never "anglicized" his name like so many other German immigrants.

His application for citizenship was denied when he refused to swear to bear arms in defense of his adopted country. He told U.S. authorities he would agree to kill an enemy only when he was personally convinced that his country was in the right, and after first trying to win the enemy over by persuasion.

In Germany he had come under the influence of some of Tolstoy’s ideas against "patriotism," and having done his one-year of compulsory military service (in 1900) — he did not want any more for himself, or his offspring.

They interned him in both World War I and II for his personal convictions. But none of these incidents would quell Hermann’s spirit.

In 1934 he fulfilled one of his dreams by opening Santa Barbara’s first health food store, "Sexauer Natural Foods," which began one of the most important chapters in this city’s history. Not only did the shop provide the local population with natural foods; it also became a focal point for people to gather. With literally thousands of unusual books on health, politics, and economics, Santa Barbaran’s received their daily or weekly dose of uncensored literary radicalism, with Hermann as the moving spirit in most of the activities.

Here are some quotes that indicate his personal opinions, taken from a few old newspaper interviews and personal notes.

Hermann also considered himself a philosophical anarchist, a radical pacifist, a theoretical nudist, and an anti-communist. His real bastion of non-conformity however was his residence in Quail Canyon, which contained five dwellings on 13 acres, with two of them in trees. The well-crafted tree-homes were famous in Santa Barbara, and housed thousands more books. City officials and bureaucrats were always on Sexauer for code violations.

A raw vegan diet was one of the guiding principles of his life, and he was a close friend with the Richter’s in Los Angeles who owned the raw food cafeterias. Professor Ehret and Kristine Nolfi’s books have also been located with Sexauer’s stickers affixed to them.

Hermann was also a very strong and vocal opponent of vivisection, and spoke out against it — even back in the 1920s. He also had several books and pamphlets he distributed which described the horrors of animal abuse.

Natural Foods in Santa Barbara
Although Sexauer’s Natural Foods closed its doors in about 1967, Hermann lived to see the late 1960’s when its successors like "Sun and Earth" were feeding a new generation of rebels. At Santa Barbara’s Earl Warren showgrounds during the summer of 1969, you could see Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull for $3.50, then hitchhike over Camino Cielo to Redrock or Big Caliente hot springs, and run around naked with a thousand hippies. But to Hermann this was just a replay of his own youth in Germany at the turn of the century, when his generation experienced a similar phenomenon — then introduced it to a prudish America.

The big oil spill on February 3, 1969 in the Santa Barbara channel helped to alert the city to respect environmental concerns. Then April of 1970, the first Earth Day, activists of all colors were seen joining in the cause.

By 1972 Santa Barbara had 15 health food stores, and the region was experiencing a cultural Renaissance of the type that British Folk balladeers romanticize about. California...sunshine, mountains, fruits, surfers, and smiling innocent flower children.

But then came the 1980’s and 90’s with all of their political and cultural changes. Now the city seems to suffer from its own overprivelidged identity crisis. Driving down State Street in "puffyville" there’s a superficial veneer of Hollywood-type pretense, and one can’t help but wonder about the ambitions and motives of the present day inhabitants, some of whom look like they are auditioning for a low budget film between sessions with their psychotherapist or guru.

The old style health shops like Sexauer’s have been replaced by corporate "Health Super-Markets," where underpaid employees anxiously await their next cigarette break in the parking lot. The median price of a home in Santa Barbara is now $475,000, and a huge portion of the virgin oak forest and farmland in Santa Barbara county is being bulldozed to make way for wineries and horse corrals.

After Hermann’s passing in 1971, it only took about a decade for some fresh replacements to arise. Disenchanted with societal ills, a philosophy grew out of the punk rock hardcore scene, when bands like Minor Threat and The Teen Idles began to transform the minds of youths worldwide. The message was a lifestyle free of drugs, alcohol and promiscuity, and for many this later included a vegetarian or vegan diet—with attention also focused on ecology, animal rights, and social concerns.

Webster’s dictionary (2000) includes the word "straight-edge" [1980-1985] and defines it (adj.) : advocating abstinence from alcohol, cigarettes, drugs and sex and sometimes advocating vegetarianism.

So the seeds were planted, and by the 1990’s "junior Hermann’s" began sprouting up in other parts of the world, now armed with computers, mountain bikes, guitars, self-published books, and especially attitudes. But it is doubtful if any of them would ever match the true godfather of the creed, who could vent his passion in six different languages. Age never mellowed Hermann either as attested by the title of a Santa Barbara newspaper article from 1964: "Sage of Quail Canyon Still at it — Maybe Even More So."

A few of Hermann’s old customers have been spotted at David Wolfe’s lectures in Santa Barbara. It is a shame someone didn’t salvage his massive collection of health books, which could probably fetch $100,000 nowadays. Sexauer would be a great name for a band.

In 1964 one news reporter said to Hermann that: "it seemed like the world is a long way from accepting your ideas." To which he responded: "Yes, and look at the shape it is in."

He died at the age of 88 in December of 1971, after a short illness. The obituary notice of December 10, 1971 said: "he was a non-conformist" and that he "rode his bicycle to work every day until he was past 80."

Rudolph Ziesenhenne, Hermann’s neighbor for over 40 years, remembered a story of the Catholic priest who had been told by his doctor that he was going to die. In a last ditch effort for survival, he followed the unorthodox path to Sexauer’s Health Shop. Hermann quickly put the priest on a radical cleansing diet, and had him sunbathing nude on top of the tree houses. The priest recovered his health, then later bumped into his old doctor who asked, "Aren’t you dead yet?"

That’s how I’d like to remember Hermann Sexauer. Unlike anyone in my family (except me), but just like most of the new breed of raw vegans I have met.

Gordon Kennedy is the author of the book Children of the Sun.

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