Seagoing Cowboys before World War II – Part I

The term “seagoing cowboy” was coined at the start of UNRRA’s livestock shipments in June 1945; but the men who carried this title weren’t the first to tend livestock on the oceans. Bob Zigler, Heifer Project’s seagoing cowboy office manager in 1946, wrote:

       It seems that livestock has been transported on a commercial basis since man began to tame animals and graze them in herds. For years cattle boats have been the ‘poor man’s taxi’ to adventure and foreign lands. By choice or necessity many have used this means to make their way over the sea lanes of the world.

Of the thousands who have sailed probably the best known was the late Will Rogers. Will, as youth, had left his home in the Indian Territory for Argentina and the great cattle ranches of the pampas. But several months passed by in an unsuccessful effort for fame and fortune and the future was not promising. So he signed aboard the SS Kelvinside bound for Durban, South Africa with a load of livestock. And a load it was for on board were 500 head of cattle, 700 hard tail mules, 400 horses, and on a specially built deck, a flock of sheep.* Truly a floating menagerie. The trip from Buenos Aries lasted 25 days and as it has been for many since that time, it was 25 eons of relentless agony. The year was 1902.

Then came the crisis and agony of World War I, leaving millions of hungry people across Europe in its wake. The Germans suffered not only from war damage, but also from the reparations required of them in the Versailles Treaty to deliver 800,000 milk cows to the Allied countries from an already dwindled herd. With a low supply of milk, death rates from tuberculosis and infant mortality had doubled since before the war. And German-American Missouri Synod Lutheran and Mennonite church leaders and farmers in the Midwest responded to the need.

In 1920 and 1921, four shipments of cows and heifers were assembled, of which three were delivered, through the work of the American Dairy Cattle Company in Chicago. The first shipment arrived in Hamburg, Germany, November 12, 1920. The 700 Holstein cows were held in quarantine until the cattle company received assurance that the animals would not be sent out of Germany as reparations.

Mennonite historian Raymond F. Wiebe of Hillsboro, Kansas, notes the second shipment of cows and heifers were donated by Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and Mennonite families of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Applications for “cattle tenders (cow milkers)” were solicited by the committee involved. One of those cattle tenders was Peter C. Andres who accompanied the Kansas cows to Texas. He wrote home from Texas City that ten vigorous youths from Hillsboro had joined him. To this Kansas farm boy, the size and construction of his ship, the S. S. West Arrow, was both impressive and frightening; but his confidence grew as he became familiar with the ship.

The West Arrow arrived in Bremen, Germany, February 7, 1921, with 732 cows, 40 newborn calves, and 30 cattle tenders who were met on board by a grateful welcoming committee of prominent German citizens. The American Friends Service Committee and the German Red Cross allocated and delivered the animals to orphanages and nursing homes, while the German Red Cross treated the young Americans to a two-week tour around the country. The American Dairy Cattle Company had requested the German Red Cross to provide this tour so the young men could see the dire need in the country and report on the conditions there when they got home, encouraging more people to donate more cows.

After the tour, half of the cattle tenders traveled on to Berlin for a reception. Photo provided by Raymond F. Wiebe.

In the meantime, in South Dakota, another drive was on to solicit cows for a third shipment, but it was not smooth sailing for those involved. (coming in next post)

*I’m not certain where Bob Zigler got this information, but I question whether that many animals would fit on a ship back then. The Victory ships built at the end of World War II could only hold around 800 large animals along with their provisions. It wasn’t until the S. S. Mount Whitney was built in 1945 that 1500 animals could be transported at one time. I haven’t been able to find information on the S. S. Kelvinside to confirm its capacity.

Sources: Notes of Raymond F. Wiebe and “Gift Cows for Germany” by La Vern J. Rippley, North Dakota History, Summer 1973.

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