A Last Roundup

These cowboys rode the seas not the prairie -- herding cattle across the Atlantic to a World War II-ravage Europe.

August 15, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Dwight Ganzel, one of the last remaining seagoing cowboys, is 81 now, his hair whitened and his back slightly stooped. He has seen the world, but he has never seen this before - the majestic red barn on the old Roop family farm in Carroll County.

"Golly!" Ganzel says, standing at the edge of the barn this past weekend. "Look at the size of that thing."

This is where the cows came, starting in the summer of 1945 and continuing for three years. Four thousand, in all, would pass through the Roop farm, where they were inoculated, bred and dehorned before being loaded on ships at the port of Baltimore and sent to farms across war-ravaged Europe.

"We had 400 cattle and 200 horses," said Albert Guyer, 78, of Waynesboro, Pa., who was on a ship that sailed from Baltimore to Gdansk, Poland, in late 1946. "I was 19 years old. We met a lot of people, and I soon gave away all the clothing I had to the kids and young men who were there. They were devastated.

"As soon as they unloaded the cattle and discovered they had milk, they would milk [them] right there on the dock and drink down the milk. It was just tremendous, desperate need."

The cows had been donated by farmers from the Mid-Atlantic states as part of the Heifers for Relief project. On the voyage to Europe, they were cared for by young men, many recruited from the Church of the Brethren. While some of these "seagoing cowboys" pitched in at the Roop farm before shipping out, others - like Ganzel - went straight to the port.

From there, the cowboys' journeys lasted anywhere from one to three months, depending on weather and the speed of their ship. Many of them would be profoundly affected by the experience of delivering livestock to desperate farmers and a hungry populace, and went on to lives of ministry and missionary work.

They ultimately scattered around the globe. But this weekend they came together again, 27 of them, for a 60th anniversary celebration of their trips that was held at the farm and the nearby Brethren Service Center. They came with artifacts - their Coast Guard IDs, showing them with strong jaws and thick hair, and bullets found in Poland and Germany. They came with sepia-toned photos of devastated cityscapes and grateful European farmers. They came with their memories.

Baltimore was not the only port involved. Ships also left from Newport News, Va., New York, Portland, Maine, New Orleans and Seattle. (Livestock were sent to China and Japan, as well as Europe.) But the Roop farm - 120 acres near the town of Union Bridge - was key to the effort.

In the summer of 1945, Roger Roop and his wife, Olive, went to York, Pa., where some of the first cattle were being collected to send overseas. The newly formed United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration was providing the ships, while the Church of the Brethren, a small evangelical Protestant denomination, stepped up to provide much of the livestock and cowboys.

Roop was intrigued by the project, but he thought the York fairgrounds wasn't a suitable place to hold the cattle. So he offered a small portion of his farm as a holding ground, thinking it would just last for the summer. But it soon became his life.

Within a few days of the York trip, a farmer from Virginia showed up with a truckload of heifers and wanted to know if this was the place where the cows were being collected. According to his wife, Roop said, "Nothing's been formalized, but you're here and the cattle are here, so I guess we'll unload them."

Roop, who died in 2001, was a member of the Church of the Brethren and a conscientious objector. He was not a soldier, but he wanted to do something to help the people whose lives had been devastated by war.

"We were aware of the suffering in the world, and we felt like maybe we could do something to help," said Olive Roop, 92, from her home in Bridgewater, Va. "I really think that was the only thing that motivated us to do it."

It was not exactly the best time in their lives for middle-of-the-night cow deliveries. The Roops had two young girls, ages 14 and 8, and a newborn daughter. When the semi trailers would show up at night, the drivers would blow their air horns and wake the baby.

"I didn't appreciate that part," Olive Roop said. At one point, when there were 13 bulls on the farm, the girls were not allowed to leave the house. It was an unusual, and sometimes difficult, experience, said Patricia Roop Robinson, the middle daughter.

"It sounds very romantic and good - and it was - but it was messy," says Robinson, who now lives in Westminster. "It was a lot of manure. It was a lot of blood. My dad got undulant fever" - a disease that is transmitted through untreated milk.

The family received a minimal payment from the Church of the Brethren for use of their farm, but money was still tight. Robinson recalls that her mother made her skirts out of feed sacks. Still, the children at school said her parents were communists and were being paid $70,000. (Neither, of course, was true.)

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