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!

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German children experience THE SEAGOING COWBOY at Upper Silesian Museum

The Upper Silesian Museum (Oberschlesisches Landesmuseum) in Ratingen, Germany, has been displaying an exhibit on the seagoing cowboys since December 2015 as part of their “Food for Body and Soul” exhibit (see post of December 11). As a result, many people in Germany are learning about the seagoing cowboys and the Heifer Project, including German children who participated in a special program this summer using my picture book, The Seagoing Cowboy. Eliska Hegenscheidt-Nozdrovicka, the museum’s education director, has sent me some delightful photos from their summer experience that I share with you here. I’m happy to say that the exhibit, originally scheduled to run through mid-October, has been extended into February next year.

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My book The Seagoing Cowboy on display at the museum.

 

 

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The children are introduced to the topic “Nourishment in times of crisis.”

 

 

 

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Eliska tells the story of the seagoing cowboys with the help of my book.

 

 

 

 

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Looking up the travelling route from Baltimore to Gdansk with the kids.

 

 

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Reconstructing the story through historical photos.

 

 

 

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The children make their own ships to transport their heifers.

 

 

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The ships take off from Baltimore…

 

 

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including a shipping mishap.

 

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The ships dock in Gdansk.

 

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And the heifers are offloaded. All is well.

 

 

 

 

What a delightful program. Wish I could have been there! Thanks Eliska for sharing this experience with me and allowing me to share it with my readers.

I’d be happy to know how others are using the book.

 

The real Cowboy John from THE SEAGOING COWBOY picture book

John Nunemaker shares a photo with me of his horse Queen as a colt. March 2016.

John Nunemaker shares a photo with me of his horse Queen as a colt. March 2016.

I have always been captivated by John Nunemaker’s story of finding his family’s work horse Queen on his ship when he reported to the S.S. Queen’s Victory in September 1946. John’s father had sold Queen that January, and there she was, on her way to Poland just like John. His story found its way into my picture book, The Seagoing Cowboy, that was released the end of March.

Queen as a colt on the Carl Nunemaker farm, Goshen, Indiana. Photo courtesy of John Nunemaker.

Queen as a colt on the Carl Nunemaker farm, Goshen, Indiana. Photo courtesy of John Nunemaker.

 

 

The real Queen (Queenie in the book) was a four-year-old bay when she was sold at the Goshen (IN) Community Sale to an Eastern horse buyer. John recognized Queen because her right shoulder had been injured while clearing ground, resulting in permanent loss in the right shoulder muscle. “No doubt about it,” he says, “Queen knew John N. and John Nunemaker knew Queen.” He was able to take care of her all the way to Poland.

John identified with the story in the book and sent me a delightful letter of comments and additions to his story. He traveled to port from Elkhart, Indiana, by train with a friend, Robert Stichter, and recalls the excitement and adventure he felt at age 18 as he carried his duffel up the gang plank. He notes the four shots he got before going on board were his first shots ever.

John Nunemaker's Merchant Marine card making him an official cattle tender for UNRRA. Photo courtesy John Nunemaker.

John Nunemaker’s Merchant Marine card making him an official cattle tender for UNRRA. Photo courtesy of John Nunemaker.

John was one of the cowboys who succumbed to seasickness, “puking my last meal over the rail,” he says, “with the wind from bow of ship blowing the puke back into my face.” He recalls riding out a storm in the three-tier bunks in the cowboys’ quarters at the back of the ship. “The propeller, right below us, came out of the water over a wave, and the whole ship shuddered and vibrated until the propeller got in the water again.”

John says he went barefoot on the ship across the Atlantic. One afternoon, he was sleeping in his middle bunk thirty inches off the floor with his feet over the edge of the bunk. “Other cowboys wanted to see me wake up,” he says. “They had book matches they lit and put flame on my calloused sole.” They went through two books of matches, one at a time, and didn’t wake him until they laughed loudly. John says, “I could walk through a Canada thistle patch barefooted on our farm and not flinch.”

“We sure got excited when we saw Lands End in England from the ship,” John says. In Poland, he watched the unloading of the horses and says while they were still in the “flying stall” on dock they were branded by the left front leg with the name “UNRRA.”

Instead of children following them, John recalls the “adults begging us to help them out of Poland.” He notes, “The destruction (from bombs) we saw was terrible. We saw very few men (all killed), with women with wheelbarrows cleaning up the debris.”

“Queen and 20-plus horses were driven, untied, through the city streets of Danzig from the port to the farms and barns of Poland. We told our horses ‘Woha’ to stop. The Poles said ‘Grrrrer’ to stop. Of course, the horses of the ship did not know what ‘Grrrrer’ meant.”

Of his trip, John says, like the cowboy in the book, he would never forget the people of Poland and the terrible things war can do. “I was looking out for adventure (which I had) but wound up serving my fellow man and God, upholding my conviction and telling people that war is wrong.”

John Nunemaker adds his autograph to The Seagoing Cowboy at Better World Books, April 1, 2016.

John Nunemaker adds his autograph to The Seagoing Cowboy at Better World Books, April 1, 2016. Photo credit: Abbie Miller.

All aboard! The Seagoing Cowboy launches today!

seagoingcowboy-cover_FINAL-smallerToday is the release date for my children’s picture book The Seagoing Cowboy published by Brethren Press. It’s been a long time coming, and I can’t be more excited!

Claire Ewart’s vibrant illustrations bring the story to life, and book designer Paul Stocksdale’s map illustrated with historical photos following the story adds tremendous value to the book.

I’m grateful to Brethren Press for taking on this project and to all the seagoing cowboys who have shared their stories with me. You can purchase the book here.

Claire Ewart and I will be signing books at Better World Books in Goshen, Indiana, from 6:00 to 8:00 tomorrow night, April 1 (no fooling!). I’ll have my private launch party on Saturday, then head on down to Little Rock, Arkansas, where I’ll be presenting at Heifer International as part of the Arkansas Literary Festival on Saturday, April 16. Watch my events page on my website for something near you.

Special Post: S. S. Woodstock Victory carries Heifer Project cattle to Poland 70 years ago today

seagoingcowboy-cover_FINAL-smallerMarch 3, 2016, marks the 70th anniversary of the first trip of the S. S. Woodstock Victory as a livestock carrier. The Woodstock Victory is the ship featured in my children’s picture book to be released March 31, so I wanted to celebrate this day with a special post about the ship.

On March 3, 1946, 762 bawling heifers, 8 bulls, and 89 mares left Newport News, Virginia, on the Woodstock Victory bound for Poland. Of those heifers, 230 were sent by the Heifer Project as gifts to the most needy of Poland’s farmers. The rest of the animals were sent by UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration). UNRRA’s recipients were required to pay in some form for their animals.

Seagoing cowboys get ready to pull up hay for their mules on the S. S. Woodstock Victory to Greece in January 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

Seagoing cowboys get ready to pull up hay for their mules on the S. S. Woodstock Victory to Greece in January 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

“Floating barns” is what one Amish seagoing cowboy called the livestock ships. The seagoing cowboy supervisor for this trip, Don Bortner, reported, “We loaded 8485 bales of hay, 1831 bales of straw, 1595 bags of dairy feed and 100 bags of oats.” And, like the cycle of life in any barn on land, the “floating barns” had their ups and downs for the animals. Two of the gift heifers died on the way, one of toxema from a calf not being born and one of pneumonia. Another, “Heifer bsc 3131,” writes Bortner, “was admitted to the Hospital in Hatch four on the nite of Mar. 7, the roughest nite on the trip. After sticking her all over with needles and shaving her side she finally give in and lay on her left side. Dr. Quartrup and Dr. Freidman with the assistance of many cowboys performed a Ceasarian Operation. Had this not been done the heifer would have died. . . . I think the vets did a wonderful job under many handicaps.”

Amish cowboy Melvin R. Yoder was on this trip. His story was reported by Elmer S. Yoder in the October 2002 issue of Stark County Mennonite & Amish Historical Society’s Heritage newsletter:

Melvin and three others were assigned 100 heifers on the second deck down. The 100 heifers were in a large section or “pen” on the floor.

The trip to Poland took about two weeks. He remembers the excitement among the sailors when Bishop’s Rock was sighted on the south coast of England and at the head of the English Channel. They observed the white cliffs of Dover and headed into the North Sea, which Melvin said was described to them as the graveyard of the ocean.

The Woodstock Victory makes its way through the Kiel Canal on its third trip to Poland in June 1946. Photo courtesy of Wayne Zook.

The Woodstock Victory makes its way through the Kiel Canal on its third trip to Poland in June 1946. Photo courtesy of Wayne Zook.

They sailed through the Kiel Canal and into the Baltic. Due to the danger of mines, the ship anchored at night and sailed only during daylight hours, with two minesweepers preceding it.
. . . . After the heifers and horses were unloaded the cattlemen were free to do some sightseeing. But the main sights he remembers and has photographs of are the destruction and devastation of the war. The ship was not carrying any cargo on the return trip. . . .they had very few, if any, chores. . . .

Cowboys pass time playing cards on the Woodstock Victory's return from Greece, February 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

Cowboys pass time playing cards on the Woodstock Victory‘s return from Greece, February 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

They used their non-sleeping time mainly to play cards. Melvin took with him a barbering outfit, even though he was a novice, and gave haircuts to cattlemen. He did not say how many or how much he charged.

Over the course of a year, the Woodstock Victory made a total of six livestock trips, five to Poland and the final trip in January 1947 to Greece. She transported a total of 2,447 mares, 1,583 heifers, and 15,000 chicks to Poland and 790 mules to Greece.

The seagoing cowboy crew of the S. S. Woodstock Victory, June 1946. Photo courtesy of Wayne Zook.

The seagoing cowboy crew of the S. S. Woodstock Victory, June 1946. Photo courtesy of Wayne Zook.

Plaque inside the Woodstock Victory. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

Plaque inside the Woodstock Victory. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

Roy Auernheimer in Greece, January 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

Jasper Dunn in Greece, January 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.