By Maddie McKeever
This summer will mark the 75th anniversary of the first Heifer Project shipment to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Heifer Project was founded by Church of the Brethren member Dan West. After he had served overseas helping with relief work in Spain during the Spanish Civil War (1937-38), West realized that shipping dairy cows and other animals directly to impoverished people who were without reliable food sources could help provide them with sustainable sources of both food and income. On July 14, 1944, a group of cattle attendants, or seagoing cowboys, set sail with seventeen heifers from Mobile, Alabama to San Juan, Puerto Rico. While it was the beginning of a long sea voyage for the heifers and cowboys, it was also the successful end of the various stages of preparing supplies, organizing volunteers, raising the heifers, and more. This new idea – known as Heifer Project – was becoming a reality.
Heifer Project was founded during a critical time in modern American history for Brethren, Mennonites, and Quakers. The members of the historic peace churches had suffered greatly within the U.S. from the time of the Revolutionary War to as recently as World War I, as a result of their firm commitments to pacifism and refusal to fight in the wars. It was vital to leaders of the ecumenical National Service Board for Religious Objectors (NSBRO), including Church of the Brethren members M. R. Zigler and W. Harold Row, that they create a solution to the national military conscription law of 1940. In late 1940, the Church of the Brethren, Mennonites, and Quakers formed Civilian Public Service, or CPS, which allowed for conscientious objectors to serve their country in nonviolent ways.1Such forms of service under CPS included different forms of volunteer work, from manual labor and environmental conservation to performing medical operations, working with patients in mental hospitals, and much more. However, the creation of CPS and certain contractual disagreements between the historic peace churches and the United States government led to future disputes between “church and state,” in this case.2 Nevertheless, the formation of CPS and the determination of the NSBRO, along with the whole-hearted agreement of many, though certainly not all, conscientious objectors, is an example of the hard work that the historic peace churches put into the creation of CPS3.
The work that conscientious objectors (COs) performed for their country during wartime is known collectively as alternative service. Some types of alternative service were dangerous. This includes the job of “smokejumpers,” or CPS forest fire fighters who would parachute near the fires and extinguish them.4 However, most if not all COs considered even dangerous volunteer work preferable during times of war, if it meant that they were not forced into combat or supporting the military. Although CPS was overseen by BSC, the camps were still distantly overseen by the Selective Service Department of the United States. Therefore, while the Church of the Brethren, Mennonites, and Quakers managed their own CPS camps almost completely, they were doing so legally and in cooperation with the United States government. Each of the historic peace churches had their own service branches that oversaw such CPS camps. For the Church of the Brethren, this was the Brethren Service Committee (later, Brethren Service Commission), or BSC. For Mennonites, this was the Mennonite Central Committee, or MCC. For Quakers, this was the American Friends Service Committee, or AFSC.
Even during the first Heifer Project shipment, the seagoing cowboys risked their lives by sailing to Puerto Rico during World War II. In her blog “The Seagoing Cowboys: Delivering Hope to a War-Torn World,” author and researcher Peggy Reiff Miller tells the stories of the “seagoing cowboys,” or volunteer cattle attendants for Heifer Project who sailed with the animals to their destined locations. During the 1944 shipment, there was still a high possibility of encountering explosive mines left at sea, and as seagoing cowboy Wayne Hostetler – Heifer’s first seagoing cowboy – writes, “a convoy of eight merchant ships and four escorts” traveled with the heifer-carrying ships for their safe passage to Puerto Rico.5,6
While the Heifer Project shipments and related visits to Puerto Rico established early connections between Puerto Ricans and the Church of the Brethren, these were not the first Church of the Brethren projects within Puerto Rico. Two years prior, in 1942, the Civilian Public Service camp number 43, which operated under the Brethren Service Committee, was placed in Castañer, Puerto Rico. Beginning in April of 1942, Brethren Service Committee chairman, Andrew W. Cordier, conducted general investigations within Puerto Rico as he searched for a site for this CPS camp. This camp is also known as the Martin G. Brumbaugh Reconstruction Unit and was named after the Brethren politician, author, and historian Martin G. Brumbaugh, who was the governor of Pennsylvania. Brumbaugh was also Puerto Rico’s first commissioner of education and was appointed by President William McKinley in 1900.
The town of Castañer, which is located within Puerto Rico’s mountainous countryside, was the location of choice for the Brumbaugh Unit. The Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration, or P.R.R.A, was a local administration that worked alongside the Brethren Service Committee in helping to administer their shared “Castañer Project.”7 At this time, Castañer and much of the interior, rural areas of Puerto Rico were severely affected by a shortage of doctors and medical services, which was a main reason why the campers were placed in Castañer. The members of this CPS camp were originally planning to travel to China to offer their medical services. However, when the United States entered World War II, these volunteers were denied from entering China, since they were American citizens. Nevertheless, the campers were flexible, as was a common theme throughout much of their time spent in Castañer.
Before the hospital was built out of the old barrack-style building, the campers would improvise with whatever technology and space they could use to perform small operations along with more standard medical procedures.8 An article in a 1956 issue of Gospel Messenger titled “The Castaner Dental Program” described the dentistry in Puerto Rico and how the American dentist Carl Friesen ordered supplies that had to be shipped by boat. They arrived mostly in pieces, but Friesen improvised with whatever materials he had that he could still use, repairing broken tools and establishing a successful dental practice in Castañer.9
The following report from Andrew W. Cordier is taken from Pathways of Peace by Leslie Eisan, and it recounts the situation and how desperate the people of rural Puerto Rico were for more doctors and medical services:
At Castañer . . . there is only a nurse. A doctor comes to the community twice a week. [Seventeen] miles from Castañer is the town of Lares, but they have only one doctor . . . [he] is seventy years old. In an opposite direction, thirteen miles away from Castañer is the town of Adjuntas with a population of . . . [4,000]. They have no doctor. Thus in a radius of fifteen miles from Castañer live a total of some 40,000 to 50,000 people with the services of only one doctor. This situation is characteristic of almost the whole of the interior section of the island.10
To help solve this problem, in 1942, CPS camp number 43 worked to transform an old, abandoned barracks building in Castañer into a twenty-five-bed hospital. It was named the Castañer General Hospital and remained in operation for roughly sixteen years. From the time it was publicly opened on February 27, 1943 until May 22, 1960 (when the Community Hospital was dedicated), the Castañer General Hospital was well-used by community members from Castañer and from other surrounding areas in the remote countryside of Puerto Rico.11 In fact, according to the tenth issue of The Martin G. Brumbaugh Reconstruction Unit of the Brethren Service Committee Newsletter, due to the widespread need for medical care in this region of Puerto Rico, the hospital was in use for months even before it was officially opened to the public.12
Besides the hospital, the Castañer project started out with a farm that had been built in the 1930s. It was part of the work that the P.R.R.A. was doing in order to help Puerto Ricans who lived in rural areas with very limited access to services.13 The people of Castañer had access to a community center, which was built in 1942; a dispensary at Rio Prieto, Puerto Rico, built in February of 1943;14 and, in 1948, the Brethren Academy, which offered higher education for graduates of ninth grade. Soon, enough Puerto Ricans expressed interest in the faith practices of the Church of the Brethren, and this ultimately led to the formation of the Iglesia de Los Hermanos (Spanish for “Church of the Brethren”) congregation. The church building was constructed in 1959, and before this, the congregation – which had already formed – met in the hospital and the Brethren Academy building.
The success of the Castañer project – which officially began on August 3, 1942 – inspired Mennonites and Quakers to establish similar projects in the towns of La Plata on May 3, 1943 and Zalduondo in July of 1943, in that order.15 At the same time, what began as a Church of the Brethren effort to serve in Puerto Rico eventually spread in terms of its influence, affecting the other historic peace churches in terms of their own similar service projects in Puerto Rico. The fact that Heifer Project shipments coincided relatively close to the start of CPS camp work in Castañer also demonstrates that, little by little, positive changes continued to occur throughout the island.
Although the members of the Brumbaugh Unit were busy with their new daily schedules and appointments, the Brethren Historical Library and Archives is fortunate to have a collection of many of the newsletters that the campers each wrote in their spare time.16Many of the newsletters provide detailed accounts of daily life of the Brumbaugh Unit volunteers. For instance, one newsletter recounts in detail the daily work at Rio Prieto, a dispensary separate from the hospital.
The crowd is waiting for us – sometimes as many as a hundred.
[. . .]
A good morning’s work consists of . . . [thirty] return patients and about the same number of new patients through the doctor’s office, between twenty and thirty tooth extractions and about thirty miscellaneous cases.17
As the author of this newsletter recounts, it was not just the CPS campers but the whole community that came together to help make this work possible. People would bring what resources they had to help the Brumbaugh Unit members in their work. In general, many people would bring produce, eggs, and other food to help support the CPS camp members and the Castañer General Hospital.
While the Castañer project originally involved more than just the medical work, in 1960 the project shifted its focus exclusively to medical work. A year earlier, in 1959, the Castañer congregation began meeting in a new church building, and a modern, thirty-three-bed hospital, known as the Castañer Community Hospital, was built to replace the older Castañer General Hospital. Later, on May 22, 1960, the Community Hospital was dedicated.18 In 1976, it was turned over to a local board in Castañer, and Church of the Brethren ownership ceased.
In the days when the seagoing cowboys risked their lives to sail with the heifers to Puerto Rico, Heifer Project represented a leap of faith amidst the chaos of war. The combined service of the seagoing cowboys and prominent figures like Dan West within the Church of the Brethren helped to transform the life of a family in Puerto Rico with the first Heifer Project shipment. One of the heifers included in this first shipment was named Faith, and within the Church of the Brethren, Faith is perhaps the most famous heifer. Her story has been told in the illustrated children’s book Faith the Cow, written by Susan Bame Hoover.19 Likewise, the Martin G. Brumbaugh Reconstruction Unit represented a small group of CPS volunteers who set out because of their commitments to peace, service, and for many, because of their faith (Besides Brethren, CPSers were of different faith backgrounds, and some were nonreligious.) Although Heifer International is no longer affiliated with the Church of the Brethren, it is certainly deeply rooted in Brethren history and the pursuit of creative solutions to work toward ending poverty and world hunger. We celebrate the humble beginnings of this charitable organization, along with the steadfast dedication of CPS camp number 43 volunteers in Castañer. Their combined acts of service within Puerto Rico have certainly been sources of great inspiration, spreading throughout and beyond the island to offer hope by “passing on the gift,”20 serving peacefully, and extending goodwill toward others.
For additional information on Heifer International and Civilian Public Service, please see the following links:
1 Donald F. Durnbaugh, Fruit of the Vine: A History of the Brethren, 1708-1995, (Elgin: Brethren Press, 1997), 468-70.
2 Durnbaugh, 468-70.
3 Durnbaugh, 470.
4 “CPS Unit Number 103-01,” Mennonite Central Committee, accessed June 4, 2019, http://civilianpublicservice.org/camps/103/1.
5 Durnbaugh, 464.
6 Heifer Project Committee meeting excerpts of August 21, 1944, in Nappanee, Indiana, item 4: “Heifers for Puerto Rico,” quoted in Peggy Reiff Miller, “First Seagoing Cowboy Takes Heifers to Puerto Rico,” The Seagoing Cowboys: Delivering Hope to a War-Torn World, accessed June 4, 2019, https://seagoingcowboysblog.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/first-seagoing-cowboy-takes-heifers-to-puerto-rico.
7 CPS Camp Descriptions: #1-153: Box 1, Folder 2.
8 “Report of David Blickenstaff, director, page 1 ff,” quoted in Leslie Eisan, Pathways of Peace: A History of the Civilian Public Service Program Administered by the Brethren Service Committee (Elgin: Brethren Publishing House, 1948), 336-37.; John Forbes, “Twenty-Five Years in Castañer,” Messenger, April 27, 1967, https://archive.org/details/messenger1967116126mors/page/n295.
9 Robert Metzler, “The Castaner Dental Program,” Gospel Messenger, February 11, 1956, https://archive.org/details/gospelmessengerv105mors/page/n189.
10 Cordier, op. cit., page 2, quoted in Eisan, 335-36.
11 Kenneth Morse and Elizabeth Weigle, eds., “A New Hospital for Castaner,” Gospel Messenger, May 21, 1960, https://archive.org/details/gospelmessengerv109mors/page/n663.
12 Castañer Newsletter, March 16, 1943.
13 Eisan, 334.
14 Eisan, 337, 339.
15 Castañer Newsletter, June 22, 1943.; Earl S. Garver and Ernest B. Fincher, Puerto Rico: Unsolved Problem (Elgin: Brethren Publishing House, 1945), 98.
16 Castañer Newsletter: September 15, 1942.
17 Castañer Newsletter, March 16, 1943, quoted in Eisan, 339-40.
18 Kenneth Morse and Elizabeth Weigle, “Castaner Hospital Dedicated,” Gospel Messenger, July 9, 1960, https://archive.org/details/gospelmessengerv109mors/page/n887.
19 See the website for Brethren Press at the following URL: https://www.brethrenpress.com/SearchResults.asp?Search=Faith+the+Cow. Accessed May 13, 2019.
20 One of the “cornerstones” of Heifer International. For more information, please see: https://www.heifer.org/ending-hunger/our-approach/values-based-development/passing-on-the-gift.html.