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 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.
*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.
The Levinson livestock trips were known by the Israel Cattle Breeder’s Association as “Operation Cattle and Draught Animals for Israel.” Living near the Mennonite community in Denbigh, Virginia, and being acquainted with the service of Mennonite seagoing cowboys for UNRRA, it was to the Mennonites the Levinson brothers appealed to find their cattle tenders for this operation.
A February 1959 letter from the Israel Cattle Breeder’s Association to Melvin Gingerich of the Mennonite Research Foundation praises the work of these young Mennonites:
As you may know, altogether some 15 ships with 12,000 cows, heifers, and calves and some 5,000 horses and mules have been bought and shipped to Israel in the years 1950/1953.
Having been in charge together with Mr. Ben Levinson of Williamsburg, Virginia, I must say that the help, eagerness and devotion of these boys was so high; that I’m sure was a big factor in the success of my mission.
I take this occasion to express on behalf of the Members of this Association our thanks to all that took part in the Operation.
I’m sorry that I can’t give you a list of the participants, but Mr. Ben Levinson might have those lists in his files, all I can say is that at least 100 boys of your church have taken part in this Operation, and they are all very fine cowmen.
May I add that the Operation as a whole has been very successful, the milk production in Israel since has gone up from 180 million pounds to 440 million, and the average per cow yearly production went up from 8,000 pounds to 11,000.
Yours very truly,
L.E. Shmaragd, Secretary
As to the value of these trips, Fred Gingerich called it “a wonderful broadening experience.” Bob Eshleman notes, “It increased my self confidence and self worth.” For Jim Rhodes, it was his first exposure to hunger. “I saw children in Turkey chasing each other and fighting over cast aside apple cores and other food scraps,” he says. And for Kenton Brubaker, it was an “introduction to the situation in Palestine. I witnessed the destruction of Arab homes in Haifa, the tension in Jerusalem. It gave me a base of contrast for two more recent visits to Israel and Bethlehem.” And several of these cowboys cited seeing the Holy Lands and the opportunity to walk where Jesus had walked.
Israel Cattle Breeder’s Letter from Melvin Gingerich files, Mennonite Church USA Archives. Edited.
For Israel cowboys Jim Rhodes and Bob Eshleman, a first stop in Iskenderun, Turkey, in September 1952 resulted in a near military arrest. The pair rented bicycles to tour the countryside while some of their ship’s cargo was unloaded. A couple of miles outside the city, while passing what looked like a phone booth, a Turkish armed guard stepped out. The guard motioned with his gun for the pair to dismount and follow him.
“He didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Turkish,” says Rhodes. “We were taken over a hill to a Quonset hut type of building. He escorted us inside and with his rifle motioned for us to sit down.”
“It was scary!” says Eshleman.
Some time later, an official came out of an office. “He asked us in perfect English who we were, where we were from, and what we were doing,” says Rhodes. “After that, his questions continued – about baseball! He finally said he believed us, since only American boys would know that much about the National League and the pennant races.” Their interrogator kindly informed them they were trespassing in a military zone, in an area being prepared for a NATO air base. The boys were treated to a tour of the site and a good meal in the mess hall before being transported back into the city.
Their host told the boys the base was hiring civilian help and offered them jobs operating earth moving equipment. “American boys who grew up around tractors could learn to run the equipment,” he told them.
“The pay would have been quite good,” Rhodes says, “but we declined. Instead of facing a firing squad, we were treated quite well.”
After the 1,070 sheep and 256 goats on board were unloaded, the S. S. Columbia Heights took the boys on to Haifa where 317 mules, 20 cows, and 20 bulls were delivered and where they had the opportunity to tour the Holy Lands.
“Our worst detail was unloading the manure and bedding from our hold,” says Eshleman. “In the lower holds, the ammonia nearly overcame us.”
“All the manure was to be dumped overboard in the Mediterranean before heading out into the Atlantic,” Rhodes says. “We were told it enhanced the nutrients in the water which benefited the fishing industry.”
J. Harold Buckwalter’s crew on the S. S. Pass Christian Victory was given a different explanation. “The cleaning was done by hand, with pitch forks and shovel. It was loaded into canvas slings and hoisted by boom and dumped over the side of the vessel. The job must be completed before we entered the Atlantic so the booms could be secured and hatches covered. We were only several days into the Atlantic when we understood why everything had to be secured.” Buckwalter also recalls, “We were given putty knives and steel brushes to clean every corner and square inch of the area.”
On another trip of the S. S. Columbia Heights, cowboy Theron Schlabach notes that for his crew, “once the manure was out we would take up the heavy planks that served as the floorboards of the pens, lean them up against the framework, and scrub every square inch of floorboard and superstructure thoroughly with steel brushes and lye-water. The lye burned our skin. But we worked diligently.”
That diligence did not go unnoticed, as we will see in the next post.
Key figures in the supply of livestock for UNRRA’s shipments to Europe after WWII were two Jewish brothers, Ben and Sol Levinson, owners of the Levinson Livestock Company. With an office in Newport News, Virginia, and a 4,000-acre farm along the C&O railroad near Williamsburg, they re-purposed a 600-head feed lot for handling animals for export. Two years after UNRRA’s work ceased, the Levinson brothers were exporting again – this time to Israel. The first shipment left Newport News November 16, 1949, setting a new seagoing cowboy program in motion.
The Palestine News of December 2, 1949, reported the shipment’s arrival:
HAIFA, Thursday [Dec. 1]. — More milk will flow in Israel after today’s arrival of 744 milch cows, 42 calves and two bulls of Friesian stock, on the s.s. Pass Christian Victory, a ship of the U.S. Maritime Commission. This is the first consignment of cattle ordered by the Jewish Agency Agricultural Department, for building up livestock in new settlements.
Seagoing cowboy J. Harold Buckwalter notes in his diary on November 16:
They loaded no. 5 hatch first with the milk cows. We started milking first thing. Our beginning number was about 40. (We loaded 900 bred registered Holstien [sic] heifers, which were scheduled to give birth to their first calves after arrival in Israel!, but because the ship was delayed in New Orleans, before coming to Newport News, the calves began to arrive before sailing and we milked our way across the atlantic!)
“We were supposed to have milking machines on board,” says Lewis Burkholder. “I went as a milker and the pay was $175.00. Some men went as feeders and their pay was $150.00.”
The extra pay hardly made up for the rigors of the job. “By the time we got to Israel we were milking eight hours a day,” Burkholder says. “Four in the morning and four in the evening.”
The crossing was a rough one. “Imagine milking cows by hand with the ship rolling from side to side and most of the cows were first lactation heifers and many of us were seasick. Our hands got very, very sore from milking so many hours. One man had brought a large bottle of liniment along, so in the evening we would rub it on our hands and then hold our hands over the light bulb at each bed.”
What did they do with so much milk? one wonders. “We were supposed to pull the milk up to the deck and dump it over the side,” Burkholder says. “We learned that some cows would drink the milk so we recycled some of it. Some cows would drink as much as ten gallons.”
On arrival in Haifa, J. Harold Buckwalter recalls receiving a “Royal Welcome.” Their hard work was rewarded when the cowboys were given a two-day, all-expense-paid tour of the Holy Lands by the Israeli government. Buckwalter notes seeing “flocks of sheep along the hills,” seeing “Arabs along the roads, riding donkeys,” driving past “citrus groves and olive trees, palms and banana trees,” seeing “immigration settlements, living in tents.” They visited a Kibbutz and Holy sites in Nazareth, Jerusalem, and Mount Zion. On their own after the tour, they explored the Sea of Galilee and Tel Aviv and went up Mount Carmel for a view of Haifa at night.
John R. Martin notes, “The trip turned out to be an experience of a life time.”
(to be continued)
It’s time for our Fifth Friday post honoring seagoing cowboys who have recently passed from this world.
Emmel, Rev. Vernon Donald, May 5, 2017. S. S. Robert W. Hart to Poland, June 29, 1946.
Ensz, Albert, April 10, 2017. S. S. Morgantown Victory to Poland, December 11, 1945.
Yoder, John David, May 4, 2017. S. S. Woodstock Victory to Poland, June 7, 1946.
Many thanks to Leland Miller for his gift to my Seagoing Cowboy Storytelling Project in honor of his father Norman S. Miller, S. S. John J. Crittenden to Poland, March 6, 1946.
Rumors abounded among seagoing cowboys who went to Poland that UNRRA horses were being stolen by the Russians and shipped off to Russia. I’ve found assurances in archival materials that this was not the case. The following letter dated October 28, 1946, was sent to the Brethren Service Committee by Brig. C. M. Drury, Chief of the UNRRA Mission to Poland in Warsaw:
Subject: Livestock imported to Poland
Although we have received rumors from various sources that some livestock brought to Poland by U.N.R.R.A. has been taken by other countries, particularly Russia, our investigations have repeatedly proven all such rumors to be without foundation.
I can say without hesitation that to date as far as I know not one U.N.R.R.A. animal has been stolen from the Polish people by the Russians.
On the other hand, the Polish Government Repatriation Office informs us that the Russian government has permitted repatriated persons returning to Poland from Russia to bring with them up to the end of the first quarter of 1946: 52,536 horses, 121,347 cows, 36,775 hogs and 55,329 sheep and goats.
Signed: C. M. DRURY, Chief of Mission
An identical letter was signed by Dr. A. G. Wilder, Chief Veterinarian.
This assessment was confirmed by Gaither P. Warfield of the Methodist Committee for Overseas Relief and Methodist representative to the Heifer Project Committee who visited Poland in early 1947. Minutes of the March 29, 1947, HPC meeting state: “Warfield said he had not seen any confiscation by the Russians in Poland since they came into the country in the last six or eight months.” Ralph Delk, at the same meeting, reported that “Dr. Wilder has traced down rumors of confiscation but not in any single instance have they found Russian confiscation of American gifts.”
So the seagoing cowboys can rest assured that their animals most likely got to where they were meant to go.
There were two instances, however, where animals sent by the Heifer Project were diverted within Poland. Thurl Metzger, later to become Executive Director of the Heifer Project, spent mid-October 1946 to mid-April 1947 in Poland working for both UNRRA and the Brethren Service Committee. He reported these happenings to the Heifer Project Committee on his return to the United States.
In March 1946, 228 HPC heifers were shipped to Poland on the S. S. Woodstock Victory. Apparently by mistake, these heifers were sold by the Polish government as regular UNRRA supplies. Metzger discovered the mistake, backed up his claim with evidence, and approached Polish officials about the missing animals. “Armed with only my youthful indignation,” Metzger reported years later, “I was able to secure a settlement.”
Based on the average the Polish government received for the sale of UNRRA heifers to Polish farmers, a total of 4,104,000 zloties was deposited by the government in the Naradowy Bank Polskie in Warsaw. This posed a problem for Metzger: What to do with $41,040-worth of zloties that outside of Poland were worthless? He reported to the Heifer Project Committee that the answer “came like a revelation.” The money was used that July to pay the passage for ten Polish students from the College of Agriculture of the University of Warsaw to the United States to spend a year in the homes of American farm families. This planted a seed, which lay dormant for a decade due to the Cold War. Then in 1957, the Church of the Brethren began the Polish Agricultural Exchange Program, which lasted for nearly 40 years.
The second diversion of cattle happened in December 1946 when a private company contracted by the Polish government to handle all imported livestock substituted some poor quality cows for Heifer Project’s best heifers through a slight of hand. They would have gotten away with it were it not for a brave peasant impressed by Heifer’s humanitarian efforts who came forward several days later and reported the incident to Metzger’s office. An investigation ensued, and five Heifer Project animals were identified in the firm’s herd by their ear tags. “Again the government acted in good faith,” reported Metzger, “and ordered the firm to turn over the five identified cows which were additions to the substitutions that had already been made.” Metzger concluded, “[I]t is significant that the Polish government reputed to be Communist was concerned enough about their relations to a small church group that they made an unusual effort to keep the records straight.”