Left in Andover: Post WWII’s seagoing cowboys and the milk of kindness

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

One of the very first relief operations undertaken by the fledging United Nations, from its inception in 1945 through 1947, was to send several hundred boatloads of cows and horses to resupply war ravaged eastern Europe with livestock.

This was a cooperative initiative with the Brethren Service Committee of the pacifist Church of the Brethren.

Herb Leader and Grateful the cow at Popplewood Farm in the early 1970s.

“Seagoing cowboys” provided the crew for these grueling trans-Atlantic voyages. Properly caring for and controlling the hundreds of large, restless animals on shipboard required round-the-clock diligence, as well as brawn.

This international mobilization constituted the genesis for Heifer International, the modern day hunger relief and small scale rural development NGO that offers starter farm animals to impoverished families around the globe. The understanding is that offspring from these animals will be passed on to neighbors, thereby fulfilling the ideal of  “…teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

When I was very young growing up in Andover, families either ran small dairy farms or, minimally as in our case, kept a cow or two to supply the household its own dairy products. Mom also milked goats. The manure from all these ensured the fertility of our fields and gardens.

Since Mom did not drive, it was guaranteed someone would always be home to do chores. Mom coaxed the gallons of raw milk into cottage cheese, butter and buttermilk, a major source of our nutrition. For special occasions, we churned our own ice cream using rock salt and ice to freeze the egg and cream mixture.

Leader family with goat in 1953.

I do not recall ever hearing of anyone being allergic to dairy. In contrast, I now consider myself dairy intolerant, and within my immediate family circle there are few to none who consume dairy on a consistent basis. The institution of the family cow, once commonplace, is now defunct, a casualty of the mobile society.

Our last family cow, in the early 1970s, started as a project of my teenage brother, who had set up camp independently in one of our cabins. We each took turns milking Grateful, a Jersey three-teat wonder, right out in the middle of the field where she spent the summers munching on clover, vetch and timothy. Dad especially enjoyed his communion with Grateful’s warm flank twice a day. We could hardly consume all her output, but the enjoyment of watching her transmute vegetable matter into rich creamy milk made us loathe to part with her.

The founder of Heifer International, Brethren church member Dan West, conceived the idea for this organization as a relief worker during the Spanish Civil War. In 1936, serving hungry children milk, it was not much of a jump for him to realize that providing “not a cup of milk, but a cow” would ultimately provide the better outcome.

Dad’s Coast Guard and ID papers for his seagoing cowboy voyage.

In 1941, Norma and Alfred Jacob established their communal pacifist Hilltop Farm in Jamaica, Vermont. They, also — as Quaker members of the three “peace churches” of Brethren, Mennonites and Quakers — had worked in relief services during the Spanish Civil War. Norma recorded her horror watching a stream run white with wasted milk from cows that had been supplying a defunct condensed milk factory. Meanwhile, a mere 100 miles away in Barcelona, children were suffering starvation.

In 1946, my dad signed up as a “seagoing cowboy” on a cargo ship to Poland with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation  Administration. The Jamaica address he gave was of his friends the Jacobs, who had galvanized him to action.

In Octover 2019, my family received a letter confirming his service from Peggy Reid Miller, a Brethren archivist and author of The Seagoing Cowboy:

“Yes, your father, Herbert Leader, was a seagoing cowboy. I’m attaching a scan of his card from the seagoing cowboy card file at the Heifer International archives. You’ll see that he was on the Victory ship S.S. Pass Christian that left Baltimore November 22, 1946, for Poland. There is a note that this was just one-way, but also a note that he returned on the Pass Christian. So I’m not sure exactly what that means. It could mean that he had intended to stay over there for awhile for some purpose and came back on another trip of the Pass Christian, or his plans changed and he did in fact return on the ship he started on. I see he was paid only half of the $150.00 the cowboys were paid by UNRRA, which suggests he did not return on the trip he left on. … That particular trip of the Pass Christian carried 689 horses to Poland. That’s all I can tell you.

Blessings, Peggy”

Dad’s official seagoing cowboy file record card.

In November 1946, Mom was six months pregnant with her first child. She stayed with my grandparents in New Rochelle, N.Y., while Dad embarked on his seafaring adventure. No doubt he needed the money, so I would dearly love to know how he got sidetracked and only got paid half the $150.

I have to wonder if he had conceived a half-baked idea to track down missing relatives in Poland, but there is no way to know. In any case, he returned to the States exactly one month after his departure, just in time to celebrate his and Mom’s first wedding anniversary.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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