The texts for this post and the three to follow are excerpts from an article I wrote for the Okanogan County Heritage magazine for their Winter 2014 issue. In 1945, a Church of the Brethren representative went to the Tonasket, Washington, high school to ask for volunteers to serve as seagoing cowboys. This is their story:
Ten young men responded to the call, most of them students: Mark Bontrager, Jack (Jick) Fancher, Junior Hawkins, Kenneth Lorz, Charles Merrill, Bruce Picken, and Gerald Vandiver of Tonasket, William Dugan and John Woodard of Loomis, and Dave Henneman of Oroville. At the ripe age of 18, Bontrager, the son of a local Church of the Brethren pastor, was selected as leader of the group.
Bill Dugan recalls their adventure started with a trip to the Smith Tower in Seattle to obtain their seaman’s cards, as all seagoing cowboys had to join the Merchant Marines in order to work on a ship. The week of Thanksgiving, the boys departed for the East coast on the Empire Builder from Wenatchee. Two older Wenatchee gentlemen, Clayton Robinson and W. A. Holland, accompanied them.
From the album of Mark Bontrager.
The long train trek across the country was broken up by a stop in Chicago. Jick Fancher recalls, “My sister had a friend there who came and got us and took us to Thanksgiving dinner,” a bright spot in the trip for him after having his billfold stolen on the train with all his cash and cashier’s checks in it. He got the cashier’s checks back, but none of the cash. Dugan recalls getting meals in Chicago at the maritime service and eating dollar box lunches sold on the train.
From Chicago, the group took a train to Baltimore, Maryland. J. O. Yoder of Goshen, Indiana, cowboy supervisor for the boys’ trip, noted in his journal: “The entire group of 12 Washington state kids got on train at Balti [sic] for New Windsor! A pretty young and careless bunch.” Yoder obviously had not yet identified two the group as adults.
The Brethren Service Center in New Windsor served as home base for the group while they awaited their orders. They had time to travel to Washington, D.C., where they explored the nation’s Capitol and met their Representative to Congress, Walt Horan, who showed them around.
From the album of Mark Bontrager.
In the meantime, crews were being put together by the seagoing cowboy office for a shipment out of Portland, Maine, and another out of New York City. The Monday after Thanksgiving, November 26, Yoder recorded in his journal: “Looks like the Washington fellows will be on my boat—much to my chagrin.”
Clayton Robinson became Yoder’s roommate at New Windsor, and Yoder recommended him to be crew leader. But as fate would have it, a seagoing cowboy freshly returned from the first UNRRA cattle boat trip to Poland showed up at the Center. He spoke to the new cowboys after dinner and “Told of all the gory sights seen in Poland and of the hair-raising ride in stormy seas,” Yoder said, after which, “Mr. Robinson and Mr. Holland, leaders of the Washington group, decided tonight to go back home—leaving the boys without leaders! Worried me aplenty as that bunch shan’t be without someone to crack down on them.” Yoder appealed to the leaders of the program, “either the kids would have to go back to Washington, too, or Mr. Robinson stay! Well, the result is that it looks as if they will all stay and go Monday.”
Monday morning, bright and early, the group boarded the train for New York City where they stayed at the Seaman’s Church Institute. The next day Yoder notes, “Robinson and Holland have decided to quit and go home. Could tell they were extremely blue, homesick and bewildered. . . . so I was left without a crew leader. This whole mess made me a bit discouraged at the time.” But it must have turned out okay, as Yoder makes no further mention of the Washington boys in a negative light. They came from farm or ranch backgrounds and evidently proved themselves to Yoder by their hard work on the ship.
Myself and Bill Dugan after interviewing him in 2014.
(to be continued)