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 Recipients in Poland, Part I–Suchy Dab, 1945

This post begins a series of three stories about meeting Heifer Project and UNRRA recipients in Poland. Our first story takes us all the way back to November 1945 and the UNRRA and Heifer Project trip of the S. S. Santiago Iglesias, just seven months after fighting ceased in Europe. This was the third shipment to Poland made by UNRRA and the first by the Heifer Project .

The S. S. Santiago Iglesias awaits loading in Baltimore, MD, November 1945

The S. S. Santiago Iglesias awaits loading in Baltimore, MD, November 1945. Photo courtesy of Clifton Crouse family.

The ship left Baltimore Nov 19, 1945, with 150 Heifer Project animals on board and another 225 UNRRA heifers. The S. S. Santiago Iglesias docked in Nowy Port, Poland, outside of Gdansk. The sights that met the seagoing cowboys when they arrived were ones of utter devastation. The war had left Gdansk and the surrounding area in ruins. And the cowboys, their work being finished, were free to explore.

The village of Suchy Dab gave a warm welcome to the seagoing cowboys they thought had delivered their animals. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

The village of Suchy Dab gave a warm welcome to the seagoing cowboys they thought had delivered their animals. Photo courtesy of Heifer International. (An UNRRA photo, I believe.)

The Heifer Project animals were unloaded and distributed in the village of Suchy Dab, some 20 miles outside the city, to pre-selected farmers who had no cow. The village put on a celebration to thank the cowboys for bringing them these heifers.

One of the cowboy leaders for this trip of the S. S. Santiago Iglesias was L. W. Shultz, who was the administrator of Camp Alexander Mack (IN) and first chairman of the Brethren Service Committee. Church of the Brethren pastor Ross Noffsinger was a cowboy crew leader on another ship carrying only UNRRA animals, the S. S. Mexican, which left Baltimore for Poland three days before the Santiago Iglesias. So these two ships were both docked in Nowy Port at the same time.

L. W. Shultz with his guide in Warsaw, where he delivered a check from the city of Warsaw, Indiana, to the mayor of Warsaw, Poland. Photo courtesy of the family of L. W. Shultz.

L. W. Shultz with his guide in Warsaw, where he delivered a check from the city of Warsaw, Indiana, to the mayor of Warsaw, Poland. Photo courtesy of the family of L. W. Shultz.

When the truck came to pick up the cowboy crew from the Santiago Iglesias to take them to Suchy Dab for this celebration, L. W. Shultz was away from the ship tending to business in Warsaw; and somehow it happened that the crew of the S.S. Mexican, which had not delivered any Heifer Project animals, got picked up instead of L.W.’s crew. This mistake led to a memorable event for S. S. Mexican cowboy Al Guyer, who was the very first seagoing cowboy that I interviewed, in February 2002. He recalls:

It was over Thanksgiving time, and it was starting to get pretty cold, but they took all the cattlemen out to the country where the cows were given to the farmers, and the farmers had us all together in a great big community building, I guess it was, where they had a banquet for us. And the banquet consisted of some dry fish and little round cakes of some kind, and some brown bread, I think they had, and some vodka. And then they had the children there, and they sang to us. And, oh, how they expressed their real joy in receiving the animals! And then they had kind of a service of friendship where they used salt and bread, and they gave speeches, and there was an interpreter, and our leader, Ross Noffsinger, responded. Of course, it was all done in Polish, and I don’t remember the words to it, except I knew it was an expression of their friendship and thanks for the animals.

The crew of the S. S. Mexican, November 1945.

The crew of the S. S. Mexican, November 1945. Photo courtesy of Clarence Reeser.

And so it was that this crew of the S. S. Mexican received the ceremony of bread and salt, the Polish traditional expression of hospitality, that was intended for the Santiago Iglesias crew. You can imagine L. W. Shultz’s response when he returned to his ship and found out his crew had not been the one taken for the celebration! He quickly arranged for a second celebration for his crew.

Knowing all this history, this town was on my list of places I wanted to find when I traveled to Poland in 2013. More about that in Part II.

Planning ahead on the Seagoing Cowboy story and looking back on a great year

I’ve completed six months of bi-weekly blog posts now about the Seagoing Cowboy and Heifer Project histories. I’m in the process of planning my calendar of posts for this year; and to that end, I’d be happy to know what questions my readers might have that you would like answered about these two histories. I’d also be happy to know what you have particularly enjoyed and what you would like to see more of. You can share your questions or comments with me either through the reply feature of this blog or by emailing me at prmiller@bnin.net.

In this, my first post of the year, I invite you to look back with me at some of my personal highlights of 2014:

Jo Israelson and Peggy Reiff Miller at Heifer International, March 2014

Jo Israelson and I. Photo by Alan McNamee

 

Opening night of Jo Israelson’s exhibit “Heifer Relief: Compass, Ark, Berth” at Heifer International headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas, March 13, 2014, where I was the speaker along with two amazing seagoing cowboys: Merle Crouse and Howard Lord.

 

Okanogan County, WA, seagoing cowboys

Seated, L to R, Seagoing Cowboys Dave Henneman, Bill Pyper, Jick Fancher, Bill Dugan. Standing, L to R, Jack Lorz, whose brother was a seagoing cowboy; me; Neoma Vandiver who husband was a seagoing cowboy. Photo by Rex Miller

 

A speaking trip to Tonasket, Washington, the end of August that included interviews with all four seagoing cowboys pictured. I was invited by college classmate and friend Sandra Brightbill, President of the Okanogan County Historical Society, to honor the seagoing cowboys from their county.

 

 

Rex and Peggy Reiff Miller

Rex and I at the Ellisforde Church of the Brethren in Tonasket, WA, where I spoke August 24, 2014. Photo by Jerry Brightbill

 

 

And what a joy it was to have my husband, Rex Miller, with me on that trip.

 

 

 

 

Seagoing Cowboys at Beyond Hunger Northern Indiana, Sept. 2014

Heifer International honored the Seagoing Cowboys who came to the Beyond Hunger Northern Indiana event with a “Make a Difference Award.” I’m in the upper left and Heifer’s CEO Pierre Ferrari in the middle of the third row. All the others were cowboys or cowgirls. Photo courtesy of Heifer International

Heifer International’s Beyond Hunger Northern Indiana event at Camp Alexander Mack in Milford, Indiana, September 12-14, 2014, was one of the 70th anniversary celebrations Heifer sponsored across the country last year. I co-chaired the event; the planning took up a large portion of my time during the year, but it was worth every minute of it when the event brought together 25 seagoing and flying cowboys and cowgirls from all over the country to be honored by Heifer.

Seagoing Cowboys of the Rock Springs Victory.

Howard Lord, Richard Hoblin, and Bob Heimberger reunite. They served together on the SS Rock Springs Victory to Ethiopia in 1947. Photo courtesy of Heifer International

 

 

What a wondrous reunion it was!

 

 

 

 

John Baker shares his story

John Baker shares highlights of his trip to Poland on the SS Mexican in December 1945. Photo courtesy of Heifer International

 

 

And full of great stories!

 

 

 

 

Seagoing Cowboys at Beyond Hunger Manheim, Oct. 25, 2014

Seagoing Cowboys honored by Heifer International at their Beyond Hunger Manheim event, October 25, 2014. Photo by Rex Miller

Another glorious cowboy reunion in Pennsylvania. I participated in Heifer’s Beyond Hunger Manheim event, October 25, 2014, that brought together 35 more seagoing cowboys.

Seagoing Cowboy Al Guyer and Peggy Reiff Miller

Seagoing Cowboy Al Guyer and I, October 25, 2014.

A joy for me at this event was being reunited with the first seagoing cowboy I interviewed, in January 2002, Al Guyer. He was on the same SS Mexican trip as John Baker pictured above at the Beyond Hunger Northern Indiana event. Al’s Christmas story appeared in my December 26 post.

 

 

Marketing meeting with Brethren Press team

Brethren Press Managing Editor James Deaton describes illustrator Claire Ewart’s image on the screen to Publisher Wendy McFadden and me. Photo by Jeff Lennard, Brethren Press Marketing Director

The final highlight of my year was a marketing meeting in Elgin, Illinois, with Brethren Press staff in November for my upcoming children’s picture book, The Seagoing Cowboy, due out this fall. We had our first glimpse of illustrator Claire Ewart’s sketches for the book. An exciting day!

Watch for more news about the book’s progress as the year goes along.

 

 

Next post: How ten Manchester College students ended up on a cattle boat to Europe

A Seagoing Cowboy Christmas

The following is an excerpt from an article titled “Cowboys at Christmas” that I wrote for Heifer International’s World Ark magazine.

Thirty-two cowboys back at sea,

Getting homesick as they could be,

Spent Christmas Day out on the deep,

And dreamt of home while fast asleep.

So wrote twenty-three-year old Willard Bontrager in “An Ode to Thirty-two Cowboys,” a poem he presented to his crew at their Christmas program on the SS Morgantown Victory December 25, 1946….

Morgantown Victory crew, 1946

Willard Bontrager’s crew on the SS Morgantown Victory delivered horses to Yugoslavia. Photo courtesy of Hartzel Schmidt

About 7,000 men of all ages, religions, colors, and walks of life responded to the call for “seagoing cowboys” during the years 1945 and 1946. A number of these cowboys found themselves away from home over the holidays, many for the first time. As Bontrager’s ode suggests, this affected some more than others.

Cowboy Al Guyer of the SS Mexican had already been to Poland in 1945. There he had seen and smelled the rubble of war and experienced the hospitality of grateful Heifer Project recipients in the village of Suchy Dab. That Christmas Eve found him on his way home off the coast of Norway, where the SS Mexican was sitting out a storm. “I hunkered down on the side of the ship where the wind was not blowing and I was so homesick,” Guyer said. “I could look out and see that shore of rocks and waves, imagining being thrown on the rocks.”

SS Mexican crew, December 1945

The seagoing cowboys of the SS Mexican delivered heifers and horses to Poland in December 1945. Photo courtesy of Clarence Reeser

But the storm didn’t stop the festivities Christmas Day. Guyer’s shipmate Calvert Petre noted in his journal, “[J]ust when they had the tables set for the feast they sent word down to watch the tables. No one took them serious enough and when the storm hit us broadside, what a roll!!! It slid oranges, apples, candy, plates, and boys all on a pile….” They reset the tables and soon were digging into a duck dinner with all the trimmings.

Each cowboy crew had its own personality, as did their Christmas celebrations. To read more of their Christmas stories, the full article can be accessed online at this link: http://www.heifer.org/join-the-conversation/magazine/2014/holiday/cowboys-at-christmas.html

That’s it for 2014! I wish all my readers a safe and happy New Year’s Eve and abundant blessings in the New Year!

Next post: January 9, 2015