Delivering Hope to the Next Generation

I’m late with this post, as I was absorbed last week in the Church of the Brethren National Older Adult Conference where I was a keynote speaker. I invite you to listen to the live streaming of my illustrated presentation that gives the back story of how I became the documenter of the seagoing cowboy history, the legacy of the seagoing cowboys and the Heifer Project, and the importance of continuing to deliver hope to the next generation. The speech, which you can find here: https://livestream.com/livingstreamcob/NOAC2017/videos/162425620 begins at 13 minutes into the session and lasts for 70 minutes. I know — that’s a long speech! But that’s what I was contracted for and that’s what I gave. If you wish to jump to the seagoing cowboy part, you can start at 25:30 minutes (including the reading of my picture book The Seagoing Cowboy) or start at 35 minutes to skip the picture book reading and stop wherever you wish. Enjoy!

Next post will pick up Part II of the pre-WWII seagoing cowboys.

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Speech to be live streamed

For those who might be interested, I will be a keynote speaker at the Church of the Brethren National Older Adult Conference at Lake Junaluska Conference Center in North Carolina Thursday, September 7. My illustrated talk will be live streamed at 10:30 a.m. at http://www.brethren.org/Inspiration2017 and can be accessed later, as well. My topic will be “Delivering Hope to the Next Generation.” The speech will give the back story of how I became the documenter of the seagoing cowboy history, the legacy of the seagoing cowboys and the Heifer Project, and the importance of continuing to deliver hope to the next generation. I’d be honored to have you join me.

The Seagoing Cowboy Storytelling Project

My work of fifteen years now has a name: The Seagoing Cowboy Storytelling Project, with thanks to the family of seagoing cowboy Alvin Zook for coming up with this title. The start of a new year is always a good time to look back and ahead; I’m adding a first Friday post this month to do just that.

Seagoing Cowboy Al Guyer and Peggy Reiff Miller

Seagoing Cowboy Al Guyer and I reunite, October 25, 2014. Photo credit: Rex Miller.

It was fifteen years ago this month that I made my first seagoing cowboy interview with a former pastor of mine, Albert Guyer. I knew he had gone to Poland with livestock, and I wanted to know what my Grandpa Abe’s trip might have been like. Al’s story hooked me in and got me started on a journey that culminated this past year with the publication of my first book, the children’s picture book The Seagoing CowboyThat event pretty well defined my professional year, first planning for its release the end of March and then promoting it throughout the remainder of the year.

A highlight of my year was a 3-day visit to the Maple Ridge Bruderhof community in Ulster Park, New York. Many older members have long ties to Church of the Brethren, Heifer Project, and seagoing cowboy history. Vonnie Burleson's (left) father and Marlys Blough Swinger's (right) brother were seagoing cowboys. Martin Johnson (top right) was my delightful host. Photo by Reuben Mow (grandson of Anna and Baxter Mow.

A highlight of my year was a 3-day visit to the Maple Ridge Bruderhof community in Ulster Park, New York. Many older members have long ties to the Church of the Brethren and its Heifer Project and seagoing cowboy history. Vonnie Burleson’s (left) father and Marlys Blough Swinger’s (right) brother were seagoing cowboys. Martin Johnson (top right) was my delightful host. Photo by Reuben Mow (grandson of Brethren icons Anna and Baxter Mow).

 

A local book signing and release party was followed by speaking events and signings for all ages that have taken me from coast to coast, with stops in Indiana and Iowa, Arkansas, California, North Carolina, New York state, Maryland, Virginia, back to California, on to Arizona, and Texas, often connecting with seagoing cowboys. I’m grateful to my many readers for the warm and enthusiastic reception of my book and the seagoing cowboy story. It’s been a whirlwind of a year, and I’m looking forward to a different pace and focus for 2017.

Sharing the story with Maple Ridge Bruderhof upper elementary students. Photo by Reuben Mow.

Sharing the story with Maple Ridge Bruderhof upper elementary students. Photo by Reuben Mow.

I’m excited about the year to come. It will start with a trip next week to Germany, where I will be able to visit the seagoing cowboy exhibit at the Upper Silesian Museum in Ratingen. Then my focus turns to the writing of a book about the first decade of the Heifer Project, including the seagoing cowboy story as it relates to Heifer. I plan to sequester myself for six months during the year at the Heifer Ranch in Perryville, Arkansas, to that end. Three months in the middle of that will be spent in “Oma and Opa time” assisting our daughter in Ohio with child care while she tests the waters of running a friend’s market garden for the summer.

If all works as planned, the year will end with another trip abroad — this time to Finland for the 70th anniversary commemoration of the S. S. Park Victory and the ten sailors who lost their lives in the sinking of the ship off the coast of Finland in December, 1947. The Park Victory had been one of UNRRA’s livestock ships, making six trips prior to its demise while shipping coal. It’s a famous ship wreck in Finland, but the livestock portion of the ship’s history was unknown there until one of the men working on the commemoration found my website.

I will only be taking a limited number of speaking engagements this year. I’m looking forward to being the speaker for a Heifer International event in Michigan April 8, in being the featured author to kick off the children’s summer reading program at the Goshen, Indiana, public library in June with the theme of “Build a Better World,” and in being a keynote speaker at the Church of the Brethren National Older Adult Conference (NOAC) in North Carolina in September. Aside from that, my plan is to write, write, write!

Many wonderful pieces of seagoing cowboy and Heifer Project history happened in 1947, so look for lots of 70-year commemorations in my blog posts throughout the year. I’m looking forward to a great year, and I wish you one, as well!

Meeting Heifer Project and UNRRA recipients in Poland, Part IV–2013 and 2015

What a gift these two women, Grace and Magda, were to me in Poland!

What a gift these two women, Grace and Magda, were to me in Poland! Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

In this concluding post on recipients in Poland, I want to say more about my experience with Magda and Grace and more about Ralph Witmer’s experience. Little did I know when I set out for Poland in 2013 that I would become a link connecting the seagoing cowboys with people who are preserving the history of Gdansk. Before I left home, I had pulled some 800 images of postwar Gdansk from my seagoing cowboy computer files onto a flash drive to take with me. I printed out hard copies of about 280 of those images, nine to a page, hoping to be able to identify buildings and locations in the photos. When I first sat down with Magda and Grace after my arrival, I had no idea what a treasure I was bringing my new friends in Gdansk.

One of the sheets of photos I took with me to identify in Gdansk.

One of the sheets of photos I took with me to identify in Gdansk.

You’ll remember that Madga is studying architectural history and Grace is a photographer and curator of historical photos. The two women looked over the images sheet by sheet and their excitement grew as they identified many of the locations, especially when they came to the colored images scanned from slides. Poland had no color film at the time these images were taken. I realized then just how special my collection is. I’ve always been grateful to the seagoing cowboys for so generously sharing their materials with me, but now I feel it ever so much more. Their generosity has brought a wonderful gift to the Polish people.

The offshoot of all of this is that the story is getting out in Poland. Grace is one of those persons who is a mover and a shaker with lots of connections. She was so taken with the seagoing cowboy photos that she arranged for interviews for me on my last day in Gdansk with a newspaper reporter and a TV reporter. The article that appeared in the newspaper the next morning generated a number of phone calls to the newsroom from people remembering those days or discovering the history.

Polish newspaper article #1Polish newspaper article #2The first photo had a young girl in it of whom one reader said, “That’s my grandmother in that photo!” But the really special part of this piece of the story is that I received an email from Grace shortly after I arrived home, saying that her aunt called her when she read the article and told Grace that her own grandparents had received an American cow, something Grace hadn’t known. Her aunt told her the cow soon gave birth to a calf, which meant step by step improvement for the family. Grace said her “grandparents lived on the outskirts of Gdansk and they had five children, so this cow was very important to them.” One of the biggest rewards of my work has been helping people connect with their family history. I’m thrilled that this has happened for Grace!

Seagoing cowboy Ralph Witmer had a similar experience when he returned to Poland last year after 69 years. Ralph’s son Nelson, who went with him, wrote a detailed letter home and has given me permission to share this piece of it:

Before we started our walk [through the old city of Gdansk, our guide] Margaret told us she had much interest in Dad’s story and had done much research. She said before we could go on she had to show us something. She pulled from her pocket a photo of her Grandfather sitting astride a horse. A horse that he had gotten from the Americans who brought them over on ships with many other goods and supplies to help in the rebuilding effort. Margaret’s grandfather had moved to Danzig after losing two homes in the countryside to bombing. He had lost almost everything. Many people were leaving because of the destruction. But he was a builder and stayed because he knew they could not give up. They must rebuild. He didn’t have much, but he did have a cart – and now he had a horse.  And with that horse and cart he joined in the process of cleaning up the rubble and rebuilding Gdansk. With that Margaret gave Dad a hug and said, “Thank you, for my Grandfather.” And so we started to meet the kind, appreciative, generous people of Poland.

Horse carts like these helped clear up the rubble of Gdansk, summer 1946. Photo credit: Dwight Ganzel.

Horse carts like these helped clear up the rubble of Gdansk, summer 1946. Photo credit: Dwight Ganzel.

Grace and Magda are working on plans for an exhibition in Gdansk of photos from my collection, because they see them as an important piece of the city’s postwar history that needs to be shared. They have applied for a grant from the U. S. Embassy in Poland, so far without success. I’m considering trying to raise money through an Indiegogo campaign to make it happen, but haven’t had the time to pursue that, as yet. If any of my readers know of sources that may be good possibilities, please be in touch with me. I’d very much like to see this happen while there are still seagoing cowboys, like Ralph, healthy enough to make the trip to participate.

All aboard! The Seagoing Cowboy launches today!

seagoingcowboy-cover_FINAL-smallerToday is the release date for my children’s picture book The Seagoing Cowboy published by Brethren Press. It’s been a long time coming, and I can’t be more excited!

Claire Ewart’s vibrant illustrations bring the story to life, and book designer Paul Stocksdale’s map illustrated with historical photos following the story adds tremendous value to the book.

I’m grateful to Brethren Press for taking on this project and to all the seagoing cowboys who have shared their stories with me. You can purchase the book here.

Claire Ewart and I will be signing books at Better World Books in Goshen, Indiana, from 6:00 to 8:00 tomorrow night, April 1 (no fooling!). I’ll have my private launch party on Saturday, then head on down to Little Rock, Arkansas, where I’ll be presenting at Heifer International as part of the Arkansas Literary Festival on Saturday, April 16. Watch my events page on my website for something near you.

Meeting Heifer Project and UNRRA recipients in Poland, Part II–Suchy Dab, 2013

Out of the blue in early 2013, I received an email from an architectural history doctoral student in Poland that opened up an opportunity for me I could previously only have imagined. Magda Starega was looking for postwar images of the Danzig Mennonite Church for a paper she was writing about its architecture; she was told I might have some that were taken by seagoing cowboys.

Many Mennonite seagoing cowboys visited the ruins of the abandoned Danzig Mennonite Church. Photo courtesy of Glen Nafziger.

Many Mennonite seagoing cowboys visited the ruins of the abandoned Danzig Mennonite Church. Photo courtesy of Glen Nafziger.

The former Danzig Mennonite Church today serves a Pentecostal Church of Poland congregation. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

The former Danzig Mennonite Church now serves a Pentecostal Church of Poland congregation. The building is on the Polish National Register of Historic Buildings. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

 

 

A correspondence with Magda developed. She wondered what other images I had of postwar Gdansk (the Polish name of the city, reclaimed after the war). I recognized in her a highly professional young woman. Knowing I would be in Germany later that year, the light bulbs went off in my brain. Could I extend my trip and travel on to Poland? See for myself where my grandfather and a majority of the seagoing cowboys had been? Find the rebuilt locations of images shared with me by the cowboys? Would Magda help me? She readily agreed, and my short, four-day visit far exceeded my expectations.

Magda and Grace found the house in the Suchy Dab celebration photo of 1945. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Magda and Grace found the house in the Suchy Dab celebration photo of 1945. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

At our initial September 30 meeting in the Gryf Hotel in Gdansk, Magda brought a colleague with her, Grazyna Goszczynska, known to me as Grace. In Grace, I recognized another highly professional woman, who had experience in photography and curating historical photo collections. Before leaving home, I had sent Magda the image I had of the ceremony in Suchy Dab we saw in my last post and wondered if we might be able to find that location. And Magda and Grace took me there.

What a thrilling day to stand in the same street as the Heifer Project recipients of 1945, in front of the same house in the photo! We learned later that during the war that house was occupied by a local authority.

Magda and Grace then took me on a cold call to visit a nearby farmer, a Mr. Alaut, who Grace had discovered had received an UNRRA horse in late 1946. We walked up their lane along a fencerow of salmon-colored dahlias and were met by two friendly little black and white dogs who announced our arrival. When the family learned our purpose, they welcomed us into the house that Mr. Alaut’s parents had taken over days before World War II began, after its German owners had left. He said they were safe there during the war.

The Alaut farm in Krzywe Koto, Poland, October 2013. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller

The Alaut farm in Krzywe Koto, Poland, October 2013. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller

Mr. Alaut recalled walking the twenty kilometers to the ship at age 16 to get the horse for his family, their first horse for the farm. “It was a beautiful horse, but wild!” he said. “I walked it home with a lead rope.” Many of the seagoing cowboys had told me the horses they cared for were wild off the western range, and I often wondered how on earth the recipients managed them. Here was my chance to get an answer. “We trained it,” he said. “My neighbor had gotten a horse, too, and we made the two horses work together as a team.”

Mr. Alaut told me, “We kept the horse in the house to keep it safe. We were afraid of the Russians. They would just come and take anything they wanted. They would steal horses and sell them.”

One of two descendants of the UNRRA horse Mr. Alaut received in 1946. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

One of two descendants of the UNRRA horse Mr. Alaut received in 1946. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Like all recipients I visited in Europe, Mr. Alaut expressed his gratitude. “Because of help from the U.S.A., we were able to get a start,” he said.

Today, the third generation runs the farm, raising grain and sugar beets, hogs and geese. They still had two descendants of their UNRRA horse, but these, Mr. Alaut said, “will be the end of the line. No one wants horses today.”

Meeting heifer recipients in Germany, Part III–The Reichswald, 2013

The last post introduced us to the Queling family who, robbed of their home by World War II, found a new life in the Reichswald settlement in 1950. In September 2013, I had the good fortune to be able to meet two of the Queling children, Cornelius and Marianne, and ten other families who settled there. Hearing their stories of what the gift of a heifer meant to them was one of the most phenomenal experiences of my life.

Representatives of 11 families who received heifers in 1950 gathered in the Nierswalde, Germany, Sports Hall, September 24, 2013.

Representatives of 11 families who received heifers in 1950 gathered in the Nierswalde, Germany, Sports Hall, September 24, 2013, to reminisce about their experience. Photo by Peggy Reiff Miller.

The Reichswald settlers came from countries as far away as Lithuania and Romania, but mostly from what today is Poland, Czechoslovakia, and eastern Germany. Although of German heritage, the settlers came to the Reichswald speaking many different dialects. In our meeting, I asked them if it had been hard to form a community with such a variety of backgrounds. They said, “No. Our need welded us together. We all had nothing.”

Tea with the Queling family

L to R: Marianne Queling Arts, Hannelore Erkins, Mrs. Queling, Cornelius Queling, Peggy Reiff Miller, Ingrid Marx. Photo by Mr. Arts.

 

The next day, over tea with the Queling family, Cornelius showed me a photo taken in front of the lovely large house in Silesia where they had lived.

The Queling Family in front of their Silesian home. Photo courtesy of Cornelius Queling.

The Queling Family in front of their Silesian home. Photo courtesy of Cornelius Queling.

Their father was mayor of their village. During the winter of 1944-45, when the Russians would come around, he would run off and hide to avoid capture. Marianne recalled one such time:

While father was hiding, we took everything in our wagon. Mama had the smallest child in her arms. The whole village was leaving. The Russians were attacking the whole trek and wanting to rape the women. We had a carriage with two doors. The Russians came in one door, and Mama ran out the other and into the forest to hide. Then we children were alone. The horse was rubbed raw across its breast. Somebody had to pull the carriage and we children had to push it and mommy was gone. In the meantime, mother and father went out every day looking, wondering, when will the children come home? After six weeks, we found our way home. We all stayed together, but we were so dirty. We had lice, everything. Don’t ask how we came home. We lived on potato peelings. . . .

When the family had to flee for good in 1945, Cornelius was 12 years old, and Marianne around 5. The family spent the next four years going from various camps, churches, or castles that could accommodate the refugees. They were accepted into the Reichswald in 1949 and settled on a 16 hectare (39-acre) plot, having to clear the land of the tree stumps. Marianne said they pulled out 32 wagon loads of stumps. At age 16, Cornelius became the man of the house when their father was killed clearing the forest.

Peggy with Cornelius Queling and photos he brought to the meeting, one of him as a young man and one of then heifer his family received. Photo by Mr. Arts.

Peggy with Cornelius Queling and photos he brought to the meeting, one of him as a young man and one of the heifer his family received. Photo by Mr. Arts.

When they received their heifer that June of 1950, Marianne said they wondered, “Who would give us such a large gift? Up to that point, everything had been taken away from us. Our heifer,” she said, “lifted us from the depths of despair and gave us hope.”

And that, my friends, is the legacy of the Heifer Project and the seagoing cowboys: lifting people from the depths of despair and giving them hope.

Nierswalde, Germany, Town Sqaure, September 24, 2013. Photo credit Peggy Reiff Miller.

Nierswalde, Germany, Town Sqaure, September 24, 2013. Photo by Peggy Reiff Miller.

The Queling’s heifer gave enough milk that they could sell some; and widow Queling rationed their own food from what they grew so they could sell sugar beets and potatoes, as well, to be able to buy what they needed.

Today, driving through the thriving towns of Nierswalde, Reichswalde, and Rodenwalde carved out of the destroyed Reichswald forest, one would have no idea of the hardships endured by their settlers.

Next post: Meeting recipients of heifers and horses in Poland