The Beginnings of the Heifer Project

Dan West distributes clothing and blankets in Spain to Spanish Civil War victims, 1937 or 1938. Photo courtesy of Jan West Schrock.

After witnessing children dying from a limited supply of powdered milk in Spain in 1937 and 1938 during the Spanish Civil War, Church of the Brethren leader Dan West came home promoting the idea of “a cow, not a cup.” At a meeting of the Church of the Brethren Northern Indiana District Men’s Work April 12, 1942, and with the prior blessing of the denomination’s Brethren Service Committee, Dan’s plan was accepted and set in motion.

As the project evolved, it went through a series of names:
– “Dan West’s Calf Project”
– “Cattle for Europe”
– “Heifers for the Low Countries”
– “European Cattle Project”
– “Dairy Cattle for Belgium”
It was finally officially termed “The Heifer Project” at the “Cattle Committee” meeting of December 16, 1942, and at the subsequent Brethren Service Committee’s final approval of the plan in January 1943.

The purpose of the “Cattle for Europe” plan Dan presented to the Northern Indiana Men’s Work in April 1942 was “to save children’s lives, and to help in rehabilitation.” The agencies to involve went beyond the Brethren Service Committee to include the Mennonite Central Committee, American Friends’ Service Committee, and “other non-partisan agencies wanting to help. No circumference,” Dan proposed, “will be drawn by us if the essential purposes fit.”

Dan’s plan.

Dan’s outline of tasks for the Brethren Service Committee was well thought out and expansive, including:
– Appointment of a subcommittee to administer the project and encourage cooperation with other groups. (This became the Heifer Project Committee.)
– Plans to “[m]ake clear the trackage with Belgian, Dutch, and/or other governments for the efficient placing of heifers of suitable breeds as soon as [the WWII] blockade is lifted and shipping resources permit.”
– Securing cooperation of all USDA agencies.
– Creation of district committees “in at least 5 districts in at least 5 states: Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia.”
– Securing of heifer calves and securing funds from willing donors.
– Earmarking heifers “BSC,” concentrating and shipping heifers to Atlantic ports at BSC expense, and shipping heifers to European ports at the expense of European recipient countries.
– Plans to “[s]end BSC and/or other responsible [persons] with every shipload to destination on European farms” and report on such.
– Contingency plans for disposal of cows, calves, and milk products “in case of delays because of war uncertainties.”

Dan set his sights high with a suggested schedule of having 1,000 heifers ready by Autumn 1942, another 5,000 by spring 1943, 10,000 by that fall, and 20,000 each in spring and fall of 1944 and 1945.

“I believe our church has the resources to furnish more than ¼ of this total number,” Dan noted. “How much of the motive we have remains to be seen.”

Next post: Dan West’s rationale for the Heifer Project

A Seagoing Cowboy on Chick Detail

Leland Voth’s Merchant Marine card for service as a “cattleman.” Courtesy of Leland Voth.

Inspired by his older brother’s cattle boat trip to Europe in early 1946, Leland Voth decided to sign up, too, expecting to take care of heifers or horses. Little did he know that he would instead be put on “chick detail,” as he called it.

Soon after his sophomore year of high school ended, Leland set out on foot from his home in Lorraine, Kansas, to hitchhike to Newport News, Virginia. He slept in a YMCA in Kansas City his first night, then took public transportation to the edge of town where he set out hitchhiking again. “Along the way, however,” Leland says, “I waited for hours for a ride, to no avail. Finally a bread delivery truck picked me up and the driver informed me that the previous week a lady had been killed by a hitchhiker.” When the bread truck driver reached his destination of Lexington, Kentucky, Leland had the driver drop him off at the bus stop and took public transportation the rest of the way.

Leland reported to the Brethren Service Committee office at Pier X in Newport News.

The Brethren Service Committee office where seagoing cowboys checked in and received their assignments. Photo credit: Elmer Bowers, February 1946.

There he was asked to volunteer on the dock “to help assemble chicken batteries (cages) for baby chicks for the next ship.” When the S. S. Morgantown Victory crew was being assembled, Leland was able to sign on. “I helped fill the chick cages with 18,700 baby chicks and load them on the ship,” he says. The remainder of the cargo was 760 heifers. The destination: Poland.

When crew assignments were made, Leland got the night shift. His job was to feed and water the chicks and extract the dead ones. “The chick batteries were about 5 tiers high,” he says, “and each tier had a side spool of brown paper which was threaded in a narrow space under each tier to catch the chick droppings and was normally changed once a day. When the sea was really rough, the wide rolls of paper under the chick cages would fall off their racks and rip out the litter which made a mess that I had to clean up. To prevent such happenings, I made regular rounds to check whether the rolls of paper were centered on their hooks.

“The enjoyable time was to climb up the rungs of the ladder to breathe in the fresh ocean air,” Leland says. “It also was a chance to go to the galley, cut slices of freshly baked bread and smear it with a thick layer of orange marmalade. Orange marmalade became my favorite spread to this day.”

In Poland, the ship docked in Nowyport, the port area for Gdansk. The cattle and newborn calves were unloaded first. “One cow jumped out of its crate as it was being unloaded and broke its back on the dock,” Leland says. “After several days, the chicks were unloaded and I was free to tour the area for the two days remaining.”

Chicks being unloaded from the S. S. Rockland Victory in Nowyport, Poland, three weeks later. Photo credit: Robert Stewart.

The first night off ship, Leland went with other cowboys to deliver food they had brought with them to give to hungry people. The next day, they went by streetcar into Gdansk and saw the “piles and piles of bricks and rubble of buildings which had been bombed” that all cowboys to Poland witnessed.

“We discovered a former Mennonite Church which was badly damaged,” Leland says. There he found some books in the rubble which he took home to Kansas and later gave to the historian at Bethel College.

The exterior of the bombed out Danzig Mennonite Church. Photo credit: Paul Martin, May 1946.

“The return trip was uneventful,” Leland says. “Some of the men used butter as a suntan lotion while sunning on the deck until a notice appeared that ‘such activity was prohibited.'”

When the ship arrived back in Newport News, each cowboy received his $150 pay from UNRRA and two cents from the Merchant Marine (a penny a month, a token to make the cattle tenders legal workers on the ships). What to do with two cents? Leland’s crew put all their pennies in a jar, a total of about 64 cents, and drew numbers to see who would get them.

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.

Was there confiscation of UNRRA and Heifer Project livestock?

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.

Polish farmers receiving their new work horses at a collection station, 1946. Photo credit: James Brunk.

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.

Students from the College of Agriculture of the University of Warsaw, Poland, gather with officials in the United States in 1947. Thurl Metzger, top left. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller collection, courtesy of Thurl Metzger family.

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.”

UNRRA expresses gratitude for Heifer Project

The work of the Heifer Project following World War II did not go unnoticed by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. A letter to the Heifer Project Committee from UNRRA’s Director General was published 70 years ago this week in the January 11, 1947, Gospel Messenger of the Church of the Brethren:

UNITED NATIONS RELIEF AND REHABILITATION ADMINISTRATION
1344 CONNECTICUT AVENUE
WASHINGTON 25, D. C.

November 26, 1946

Heifer Project Committee
New Windsor, Md.
Dear Mr. Bushong:
I am informed that your organization, the heifer-project committee of the Brethren Service Committee, has assembled a boatload of heifers which you will contribute to UNRRA for shipment from New Orleans to China in December. This will be the first boat of cattle to go to China, and is one of the most important gifts that UNRRA has received. Thousands of the cattle you have donated are now in Czechoslovakia, Greece, Italy and Poland helping the farmers there to restore their war-torn lands and feed the populations—rural and urban—of these countries which lost 50% of their livestock in the war. The artificial insemination program in Greece, set up by UNRRA with your assistance, has materially helped to improve the depleted breeding stock of that suffering country.
The fine spirit of practical Christianity and the faith that your group has shown are examples to us all in these days when, without faith, we cannot progress. Your movement, beginning modestly as it did, has spread its spirit and its work. Transcending barriers of nationality and religious conviction, it has drawn to itself members of many denominations, and illustrated what can be accomplished when conviction and efficient enterprise and fine Christian generosity are combined.
I understand that your organization has decided to continue its work for two years after UNRRA ceases. This is further exemplification of its validity. May I congratulate and thank you in the name of those we have all been trying to help and wish you every success in the future.
Sincerely yours,
F. H. La Guardia
Director General

Yet further exemplification of the Heifer Project’s validity is that it continues today as Heifer International. The organization was set in motion 75 years ago this week, as recorded in the January 10, 1942, minutes of the Church of the Brethren Northern Indiana Men’s Work Cabinet: “The Cabinet decided to support Dan West’s Calf Project. Dan West is to give more information at our April meeting.”

The shipment to China to which Mr. La Guardia refers left New Orleans November 19, 1946, on the S. S. Lindenwood Victory carrying 723 Heifer Project cattle and 32 seagoing cowboys. Watch for stories from this memorable trip in upcoming posts.

Photo courtesy of George Weybright family.

Photo courtesy of George Weybright family.

Photo courtesy of George Weybright family.

Photo courtesy of George Weybright family.

Special Crew #3: Interracial crew works and studies together — Part I

Seventy years ago this week, on July 4, 1946, an interracial seagoing cowboy crew of college students recruited by the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen left Newport News, Virginia, on the S. S. Creighton Victory bound for Poland. The Church of the Brethren Gospel Messenger published the following article several months later:

from Gospel Messenger, November 2, 1946. Used with permission of Brethren Press.

from Gospel Messenger, November 2, 1946. Used with permission of Brethren Press.

Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller Collection, courtesy of Ben Kaneda

Peggy Reiff Miller Collection, courtesy of Ben Kaneda

More to come on this crew in my next post.

Civilian Public Service Unit for Seagoing Cowboys

Sunday, May 15, is International Conscientious Objectors Day, so this is a fitting time to write about the special CPS Reserve Unit put together for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration’s seagoing cowboy program.

Civilian Public Service was an alternative service set up at the onset of World War II for men who could not conscientiously serve in the military. CPS camps were set up in which these men could do “work of national importance,” such as fighting forest fires, working in mental institutions, doing dairy testing, etc. These camps were administered by the Historic Peace Churches – the Church of the Brethren, Mennonites, and Society of Friends (Quakers).

CPSers Lowell Short, Emil Ropp, and Alfred Gross at work on the S. S. Queens Victory to Poland, June 1946.

CPSers Lowell Short, Emil Ropp, and Alfred Gross at work on the S. S. Queens Victory to Poland, June 1946. Photo courtesy of Emil Ropp.

As UNRRA’s livestock shipments increased at the end of 1945, the need for qualified cattle attendants also expanded. An agreement was reached with the Selective Service System of the U. S. Government to allow CPS men to leave their camps to join a CPS Reserve Unit and sign up to be seagoing cowboys under the direction of the Brethren Service Committee.

Over the course of the program, 366 CPSers took this option. Some made more than one trip before being discharged from CPS. While waiting for their next ship, they were offered employment in the relief work taking place at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Maryland, at the rate of $.50 per hour plus maintenance. For their UNRRA service, the CPSers received the regular rate of $150 per trip.

Seagoing cowboys at the Kalona (IA) Mennonite Church, May 3, 2016. Left to right, seated: Emil Ropp, Henry Mullett; standing: Levi Miller, Charles Silliman, Weldon Beach, Peggy Reiff Miller, Paul Walther, Wallace Fisher. Photo credit: Mary Lou Farmer.

Seagoing cowboys join me at the Kalona (IA) Mennonite Church, May 3, 2016. Left to right, seated: Emil Ropp, Henry Mullett; standing: Levi Miller, Charles Silliman, Weldon Beach, Peggy Reiff Miller, Paul Walther, Wallace Fisher. Photo credit: Mary Lou Farmer.

Last week, when I spoke at the Mennonite Historical Society of Iowa spring meeting in Kalona, Iowa, I had the opportunity to meet up with two of the CPS Reserve cowboys I had interviewed several years ago – Levi Miller and Emil Ropp. What a great night reconnecting with them and other cowboys I knew and meeting some for the first time! Their stories always add a special note to my programs.

Levi Miller's permission to leave his CPS camp to become a seagoing cowboy. Courtesy of Levi Miller.

Levi Miller’s permission to leave his CPS camp to become a seagoing cowboy. Courtesy of Levi Miller.

Levi Miller receives his orders to report for his CPS Reserve assignment. Courtesy of Levi Miller.

Levi Miller receives his orders to report for his CPS Reserve assignment. Courtesy of Levi Miller.