An Amish Seagoing Cowboy’s Story: Lores Steury

Seagoing cowboys signed on to the job for a variety of reasons. Some were simply looking for adventure. Some wanted to see for themselves what the war had done. Others wanted to do something worthwhile to help those suffering from the war. For Amishman Lores Steury, the motivation was far more personal.

Steury had served over three years in Civilian Public Service camps during the war. Dissatisfaction hit him hard when he came home from CPS to his family farm. He and his family belonged to an independent Amish group, the Reformed Amish Christian, under an authoritarian leader. “They had no connection with anybody,” Steury said. “And that became very disappointing. That’s the one reason I decided to take a seagoing cowboy trip—to get away and decide what I really want to do with my life.”

Unlike Cletus Schrock who didn’t find out he would be excommunicated until he got home from his livestock trip, Steury decided to go knowing full well what would happen on his return. So he kept his plans to himself and rented a post office box for his correspondence with the seagoing cowboy office. “And then I made a mistake,” he said. “I gave them my home address at the farm, and my mother got the mail the day I got a card to report to Newport News. It was very difficult for my parents to know that I couldn’t be part of the church anymore. But they helped me out as much as they could. They took me to the train station.”

Seagoing Cowboys signed onto their ships at the Brethren Service Committee office at Pier X in Newport News, Virginia. Photo by Elmer Bowers.

When Steury arrived in Newport News, he met three young Mennonite men he knew from Indiana. The guys had to wait in port a few days before signing onto their ship, and there Steury experienced several “firsts”: seeing his first movies (Westerns), having a date with a girl he didn’t already know (from the nearby Mennonite community his three shipmates had contact with), and seeing separate drinking fountains and places on a bus for black people. On Sunday, December 15, the foursome departed on the S. S. Queens Victory to take a load of 770 mules to Greece.

Seagoing cowboys on the S. S. Queens Victory headed for Greece, December 1946. Photo courtesy of Earl Rohrer.

Steury found mules easy to take care of. “Just feed and water ’em and let ’em do as they please,” he said. He had heard others talk of having a much harder time with horses that needed to be kept standing the whole way across the ocean and would often bite. The easier work with mules left time for playing chess and checkers and other games.

A seagoing cowboy waters mules on the sister ship S. S. Attleboro Victory, December 1946. Photo courtesy of Harold Cullar.

“At night, I liked to be on the fantail and watch the propellers stir up the water making the phosphorus light up in the dark,” Steury said. “And I’d think, now what am I going to do with my life? Would I be a seagoing sailor that would enjoy the sea, maybe as a ship carpenter? Am I gonna go back home and be a prodigal son and say I did all wrong what I’d done? I just never felt I could do that.”

A worship service for Steury’s crew on the S. S. Queens Victory, December 1946. Photo courtesy of Earl Rohrer.

Steury’s ship docked in Piraeus, the port for Athens. “We did some sightseeing but the natives were very uneasy as Greece was in a Civil War at the time,” he said. He talked with people who had been on the brink of starvation during the German occupation. And he was approached by a man who wanted Steury and his friend to help him hide on the ship and help feed him. They told him, “We can’t do that. You’d get in trouble and we would, too.”

The man found another way. By the time the Queens Victory reached the Atlantic Ocean, he and six other Greeks desperate to get to the United States had made their presence known. “He was so happy!” Steury said. But his happiness was short lived. When the ship arrived in New York, the stowaways were put off at Ellis Island; and according to Steury, the shipping company had to pay $1,000 apiece to send them back to Greece.

On arriving home after some sightseeing in New York City, Steury said, laughing, “They didn’t butcher a fatted calf.” He was soon excommunicated and took up farming outside Berne with his Uncle Dan who belonged to the Evangelical Mennonite Church. He met his wife-to-be at a Rural Youth social. “I feel greatly blessed when I review my life with my lovely wife and family,” he told me. They ended up living in Goshen, Indiana, where he worked for Goshen College. “Thank the good Lord I did move to my cousin’s house and farm for Uncle Dan.”

UNRRA Livestock trips from the eyes of a veterinarian

At the age of 25, with his army discharge and a degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in hand, Harold Burton launched the beginning of his veterinary career hired out to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration for $23 a day—darn good pay in 1946. He spent time with UNRRA both on land and sea.

Harold Burton, DVM, on the S. S. Mercer Victory delivering horses to Trieste, Italy, for Yugoslavia, December 1946. Photo courtesy of Harold Burton.

Doc Burton spent several months working at both the Levinson Brothers Terminal Stockyards off Pier X in Newport News, Virginia, and the Owen Brothers Stockyards on the property of the Atlantic Coast Line in Savannah, Georgia, where the animals were railed in from around the country. The yards were designed to handle 4500 and 3500 animals respectively. When delays in shipping happened, the numbers would often swell much beyond capacity.

The Levinson Brothers Terminal Stockyards off Pier X in Newport News, Virginia, 1946. Photo credit: Charles Lord.

All animals were screened on arrival at the stockyards. Both facilities included hospital pens and equipment sufficient to accommodate a large number of animals. Animals arriving sick or injured during their rail transport were sent to the hospital pens. “I was assigned the job of getting as many of them as possible ready to ship,” Burton says. “I had two big, strong farm-grown cowboys who were with me in Savannah. We think we did a good job. The only problem was the pen kept getting new patients.”

On the sea, Burton says, “the veterinarian’s job is to end up in Europe with as many healthy animals as possible. The old Victory ships had four holds with a small walkway in the middle and four stalls with four horses each on each side of the aisle. We wore a backpack with medicines and syringes, etc., and hobbles, ropes and twitches to restrain the animals if we had to give them injections or sutures or whatever. It was very poorly lighted, hot, dusty and VERY smelly. Your feet were in manure all the time.”

Cowboy in lower hold on the S. S. Carroll Victory, late 1946. Photo credit: Charles Lord.

Burton’s two livestock trips across the Atlantic took him to Poland in September 1946 and Trieste, Italy, in December 1946—both with horses. Most of those animals came to his ships wild from the western US. “My father was a country blacksmith and farrier,” Burton says, “and growing up I helped him. I learned how to hobble a horse, tie one leg up by rope to stabilize him so he couldn’t hurt himself or me. This was good to know working with these completely untamed beasts.

“It was extremely dangerous,” he says, “especially in rough seas. To give an intravenous injection or a blood transfusion, or anything where we needed to be close to these untamed animals, was worth your life. Bites, kicks, bumps and bruises were a daily thing. One time, a horse grabbed me by the left shoulder blade, picked me up, shook me and spit me out. I weighed 140 pounds at the time, but I can still feel the pain.”

Doc Burton’s seagoing cowboy crew on the S. S. Saginaw Victory to Poland, September 1946. Photo credit: Harold Burton.

Burton says the veterinarians were expected to keep good records of the sick and injured horses. They used a canvas sling under a sick horse’s belly to lift the animal from below deck to the hospital stall on the top deck. “We saved a fair percentage,” he says, “considering the circumstances we worked under. If a horse died, we swung it up on the roof of the top deck stalls and did a complete autopsy before pushing the carcass overboard.” UNRRA used these reports to better the program.

An autopsy on the S. S. Lindenwood Victory, summer 1946. This was not one of Doc Burton’s trips. Photo credit: L. Dwight Farringer.

“We veterinarians got lots of excellent experience firsthand,” Burton says. “If you could make an intravenous injection or suture or bandage on an animal on a rolling vessel in an extremely crowded area with wild savage beasts, it was a piece of cake in a barn on a farm back home.”

Nanorta Goes to Greece – Part I

Not many seagoing cowboys got to accompany their heifer from farm to recipient. The summer of 1946, Jim Long, just out of high school, did. His father, Rev. Wilmer Henry Long, pastor of Trinity Evangelical and Reformed Church in Norristown, Pennsylvania, hatched the idea of documenting the journey of one heifer. He named the heifer “Nanorta.” The children of Trinity and Ascension E&R churches sponsored Nanorta. Slides and still shots captured from Rev. Long’s 16 mm film and Jim’s diary tell the story.

The church school children purchased Nanorta for the Heifer Project from Silver Lake Farm, Center Square, Pennsylvania.

Nanorta stopped by Trinity Church Wednesday, July 10, 1946. for a visit with the children on her way to the Roger Roop Collection Farm in Union Bridge, Maryland, with other heifers and a bull from Silver Lake Farm.

Jim and his father lodged at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Maryland, for the night, where Jim’s supper cost 40 cents.

While Nanorta rested at the Roop Farm the next day, Jim and his father took the train to Baltimore to get their seaman’s papers. “The process was easy,” notes Jim. The process for getting the livestock to the ship is quite another story.

Jim and his father arrived back in New Windsor in time for the loading of Nanorta and 197 additional animals into railroad cars on a sidetrack in Union Bridge.

Jim had a little trouble getting on the train. “Had to hop the train while it was moving,” he notes. “I used the wrong arm to swing on and fell off because of my back pack. But I got back on unhurt…. We made it to Baltimore at 8:30 PM after a very bumpy ride in the caboose.”

At 2:30 AM Friday, Nanorta’s train was shifted to the west side. “We slept in a vacant caboose,” Jim says. “We left Baltimore at 11 AM on the Baltimore and Ohio RR. We made Potomac Yard at 4 PM. We slept at the Bunkhouse from 10 PM. While in the Potomac Yard we watched RR cars being ‘humped’ – pushing cars up a hill and then letting them coast down the other side and being individually switched to the proper track to remake up the new trains for the continuing trip. This also required the use of automatic air compressor rail brakes to slow up the cars so the ‘hook up impact’ could be controlled and hopefully the goods inside the car not damaged.” Dinner at Potomac Yard cost $1.01.

Watering the heifers along the way. Wilmer Long photographer.

Saturday morning, “Left Potomac Yard at 3:20 AM on Chesapeake and Ohio RR and arrived in Richmond at 10:10 AM. We left Richmond yard at 12:30 PM on way to Newport News. At about 3:30 the train stopped along side Levinson’s stock yard to get the animals off the train in preparation for the trip to the ship.”

Jim and his father walked about one-and-a-half miles along 160 RR cars to the stockyards. “We saw cattle herded across the road and into the barn,” Jim notes. The first leg of Nanorta’s journey was over.

One of the Levinson brothers drove Jim and his father to Newport News where they checked into the Warwick Hotel at $2.75 per day. There they met up with two of Jim’s high school teachers who would accompany them on the trip. And there they stayed for the next week, waiting for their ship, the S. S. Villanova Victory, to come in, checking in frequently at the Brethren Service Committee’s seagoing cowboy office near the docks, and playing lots of pinnocle.

A week after arriving in Newport News, Jim, his father, his two teachers, and four additional cowboys finally boarded the Villanova Victory and got ready for their trip. Nanorta would be loaded with the other livestock the following day.

“The VV is a nice ship,” says Jim, “and our quarters were great, by ourselves at the back of the ship in one big bunkroom. The meals are good.”

Ready to sail!

[to be continued in the next post — in the meantime, Merry Christmas!]