The Seagoing Cowboy: A Book Review

June 13, 2016 by

The Book Cover of The Seagoing Cowboy

In 1955, Greece was still recovering from a vicious war-time occupation by the Nazis, which was followed by a three-year-long civil war. Both left Greece in ruins. That year, I went to Greece as part of the Friends Ambulance Unit, a Quaker relief organization. As a conscientious objector, this was my alternative service from the draft. We were part of a team rebuilding an orphanage on a western island after a disastrous earthquake there.

It was during our nine month stay, while we were driving to a conference of relief agencies in northern Greece, that I met a very impressive yet humble elderly couple named the Kreiders, members of the Church of the Brethren. It was the first time I had met anyone who was Brethren, and it was all very exciting for a nineteen-year-old fresh out of school in England.

On the drive, the woman told me how she grew up in Siberia, which she described as one of the most beautiful parts of the world. Her family fled from their prosperous farm because of the Russian Revolution, and settled in North Carolina. The new world held surprises good and bad: as a twelve-year-old, she was told by her mother to climb the pear tree near their house to harvest the beautiful pears. What they didn’t know was that the thick vine also clambering up the tree was poison ivy. She nearly died from the reaction to its resins.

The Kreiders were in Greece to deliver in-calf heifers to farmers in impoverished villages. But it wasn’t just a donation; the family received their cow on one condition: that the first heifer born to their gift cow would be given to another destitute farmer. This practical form of what we now call “pay it forward” was the Heifer Project. I was most impressed with their dedication and how they served in their old age and I have never forgotten them.

So imagine my delight upon discovering the new children’s book The Seagoing Cowboy, written by Peggy Reiff Miller and illustrated by Claire Ewart (Brethren Press, 2016). This beauteous book recounts the early days of the Heifer Project from its beginning in 1944 by the Brethren Service Committee of the Church of the Brethren. (When I requested a review copy, I actually thought I was ordering a scholarly historical recounting of the Heifer Project, but the quality and warmth of the children’s book I received more than made up for my fleeting disappointment.)

In 1945, at the close of the Second World War, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) agreed to ship the Heifer Project’s in-calf heifers free of charge to war-ravaged Europe. The Brethren had merely to supply the cattle attendants for the 360 head in each shipment; thus the “seagoing cowboy” was born. The book describes a typical journey shipping heifers to Europe with excellent paintings to accompany the many adventures experienced by the farm hands onboard ship.

a family in Asia proudly holding two baby pigs

After UNRRA was discontinued, the Heifer Project kept on going, and is still a viable charity today under the name of Heifer International. It has grown enormously over the decades, expanding to over thirty nations. Heifer now buys animals locally in the nations it works in, rather than shipping them overseas, so the role of seagoing cowboy no longer exists. But Heifer still counts on donations and volunteers (a number of Bruderhof youth have assisted at Heifer’s Arkansas headquarters in recent years) as they continue to spread the tried-and-true “teach a man to fish” philosophy. Start by checking out this new book, and then support Heifer’s long-term mission if it excites you as much as it excited me those sixty years ago in Greece.

Martin Johnson was born in England in 1936. He has also lived in Greece, Israel, Nigeria, and the United States. For many years he has worked in ecumenical relations between the Bruderhof and other organizations such as the Kibbutz movement, the Mennonite Church, and the Catholic Church. His work has taken him to Vienna, Zagreb, Athens, Cairo, Berlin, London, Lagos, Jerusalem, and Rome, where he has met with three popes. He and his wife Burgel have been married for thirty-eight years and live at the Maple Ridge Bruderhof.


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  • Martin, I am moved to tears by your account of your initial and continuing encounters with Heifer Project. Thank you so much for this lovely and personal review of THE SEAGOING COWBOY. I'm glad the book satisfied despite not being the scholarly work you had anticipated. One of my works-in-progress is a book about the first decade of the Heifer Project, so maybe one of these days you'll have that, too.

    Peggy Reiff Miller