The term itself makes one curious, draws one in. Who were they? What did they do? My own curiosity began with an envelope of my grandfather’s photos given to me by my father after my grandpa died. Growing up in the Church of the Brethren, I knew about seagoing cowboys; but I didn’t know my Grandpa Abe had been one of them. In September 1946, at age 49, he sailed to Poland on the SS Pierre Victory with a load of 774 horses. This shipment was part of a program run by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration to help countries devastated by World War II recover and rebuild.
The story hiding in grandpa’s photos meshed with a growing interest I had in writing a young adult novel. What a great topic! I thought. I could write about the journey of a young seagoing cowboy to Poland. Little did I know what a journey the pursuit of this project would become for me!
My curiosity led me to a former pastor, Rev. Al Guyer, who I knew had been a seagoing cowboy to Poland. Maybe I could learn from him what Grandpa’s trip might have been like, I thought.
Al’s story drew me in.
That interview was in January 2002, right before our family moved from Maryland to Northern Indiana, smack dab in the middle of seagoing cowboy country where the story of the related Heifer Project, today’s Heifer International, began. My passion for the story grew with every cowboy I interviewed and I’ve been uncovering, documenting, writing, and speaking about this little-known history ever since. It turned out to be a much larger story than I had anticipated, taking me all across the country to interview cowboys and visit various archives, including those of the United Nations, Heifer International, the Church of the Brethren, and the Mennonites.
Most recently, my research has taken me to Germany and Poland where I was able to see where the seagoing cowboys had been and meet recipients of animals delivered in 1945 to Poland and in 1950 to Germany.
So what about my novel?
Finding Charity, which has long since been drafted and gone through three major revisions, is resting. Along the way, I realized it was a nonfiction book about the seagoing cowboys that was needed and wanted by the cowboys, as well as a book about the beginnings of the Heifer Project. So that has become my priority. I have a children’s picture book, Grandpa Was a Seagoing Cowboy, under contract with Brethren Press; and I’ll keep you posted on its progress. But for now, the point I’m at is sifting through a roomful of accumulated research materials to find the stories for my nonfiction books.
l’ll be sharing pieces of this history here as I go. I hope you’ll join me on my journey.
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