|Cover Story||Plant Life||On Fitness||Northwest Living||Taste||Now & Then||Sunday Punch|
WRITTEN BY PAULA BOCK
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER
On the ranch, your reputation rides on fine animals, old friends and hard work
You think it's about Nike and Starbucks and Gap, things you buy in a store, packaged and trimmed, labeled with a Levis 501 tag that claims five-pocket, button-fly, authentic.
That's advertising, not genuine Old West.
If you want to talk real branding, you need to be a fly on the fence at Dutch and Dottie Starzmans' Moses Lake ranch, the Badly Scattered Land and Cattle Co., when the lilacs are blooming and the Kentucky Derby is running and the long grasses by the creek are swollen and bent silver by the wind.
Round then, the calves are a couple months old, a couple hundred pounds, shaggy, skinny-hooved, soft-eyed creatures not yet weaned from their moms. Soon they'll move from irrigated pasture to graze on open range, and when that happens they'll need an identifiable mark a cowboy can spot from a hawk's distance. Without a brand, how else can you figure which heifer belongs to which herd? And whose steers to push farther up slope?
(Message from Neil Kayser, president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association: "There's some pain to it, but it would be similar to a tattoo or someone getting an ear or a tongue pierced. Maybe that will help some people relate.")
You can squeeze calves one-by-one through a chute, tipping them onto a calf table, assembly-line boring. (This efficient but unglamorous method is favored by mechanically minded farmers who spend their winters tinkering in the barn and corporate owners who are comforted by machines.)
Or you can invite your friends and neighbors for a weekend of huge scrambled breakfasts in cattle country. The day before the branding, saddle quarter horses for a round-up along the ridge to the big pond. You'll ride through sage brush, cheat grass and June grass, if there's been any rain. From a distance, the animals will look like black and tan lumps, or abandoned tires, until they move and bawl and stir up the dust.
Morning of the branding, hand sort calves from cows. Give senior rodeo champs first crack at cutting, roping, double-heeling and dragging the calves to the fire. Then let the young guys in the ground crew take over, a swarm of denim and plaid, wallowing with the animals in the dirt. They'll vaccinate, ear-tag, inject hormones and sear the calf's hide with a metal rod that's been heated in a propane barrel until it glows cherry.
Yellow smoke will rise, leaving a brand the color of saddle leather on the calf's right hip. The brand resembles a swan with a graceful neck.
"The Starzmans come from a long line of cattle ranchers," says Leslie Alexander, supervisor of Washington state's 18 branding inspectors. "To them, a squeeze chute would be like you having to switch to writing all day with your left hand. It's their heritage. A way of life. There are very few of the good old-timers left."
Of the 7,591 brands registered in the state, about a quarter get stamped on working livestock (as opposed to ornamental mailboxes). Of those working brands, a quarter are used in traditional brandings, where cowboys rope and drag calves to the fire.
It takes about 32 seconds from when the loop snaps tight around a calf's heels to when the youngster bounds back toward its mama. But that's nothing compared to the time spent tossing hay to guests' horses before dawn, grilling hot cakes and sausages, laying a spread for 50 people, spinning umpteen loads of laundry, jamming washtub blues late into the night, and catching up on who died, who sold their ranch, who won which belt buckle or set of chaps in what rodeo event.
Yet this, too, is the Starzmans' brand.
"It has to do with ownership - pride," says Baxter Black, a former large-animal veterinarian and a commentator-cowboy for National Public Radio.
"Everyone who's there sees your stock. You don't just buy cows willy nilly. You breed them. They are your creations. That's how you'll be remembered. Not by the lawn in front of your house or a Mercedes parked in your driveway. If you're a livestock person, the cows are your artwork. The brand is your signature at the bottom of the painting."
LET'S SAY, up front, that Dorothy Starzman has a sweet spot for fine-bred animals with long, pretty eyelashes.
Finest of all was Latigo Mount, a buckskin quarter horse stud with a white hind foot, who could cut a cow out of a herd so quick it was like the horse would read the animal's mind, pick it off with a look, and turn back for the next play in one fluid motion.
These days, Dorothy is crazy about an Italian breed called Marchigiana. Marchigianas have striking black-pigmented skin under sleek white hair and, of course, the long eyelashes. Having air-shipped Marchigiana semen direct from Italy and trucked in full-breed Marchigiana cows from Canada and California, Dot affectionately refers to the shimmery beasts as "my Marky Johns."
They aren't tall, but they have fabulous rear ends, long backs and a good rate of gain; the meat doesn't marble like an Angus, so it's tender yet not fat.
Best of all, the black skin rimming the cattle's eyes looks a lot like eyeliner and mascara. This delights Dorothy, perhaps because at 75, she applies one coat of long-wearing waterproof mascara every morning to set off her own eyes, which change from sage to sky blue depending on what she's wearing. Dorothy has a theatrical streak to go with her beautiful singing voice. She's performed in 19 productions with Big Bend community theater, including L'il Abner with former quarterback Joe Namath, and has been known to show up in costume at the Quincy Livestock Saleyard, where she clerks and tends pens once a week while Dutch works the ring.
Dutch is the quiet one (except while rodeoing or playing pinochle with the boys), but he says a lot with his hands and communicates well with the animals.
Dorothy says: "My husband is from the old school, you know. You take your time and you go easy. Animals are just like people, and a lot of them is how they're handled."
Dutch was born and raised on a small Brewster ranch where his dad farmed with a team of horses long after his son talked him into buying a tractor. As a young man, Dutch tended bar, served in the Marines, trained colts, shod horses, raised cattle and traveled the rodeo circuit with Latigo Mount, cutting, roping, steer wrestling, bareback riding and winning trophies.
Now almost 80, Dutch rises every morning before dawn to check livestock and fences. He knots a kerchief around his neck, cowboy-style, to keep the dirt from drifting down his collar. He always wears a hat, billed or black Western, the brim cocked just so. Friends say he'd look bald without it.
While others chug Rainier after the branding, Dutch heads back to the corral to make sure the calves are mothered up, the horses watered and fed. Or maybe he'll sneak a nap in the chicken coop; after all, he's been awake since 4.
Dutch and Dorothy met at the Grand Coulee Rodeo in June 1946 and married in December. Wanting a brand of their own, they sent a sketch, based on their initials, to the state. That was already taken, but the department offered three other designs. Two were so cluttered they would have botched badly; the third was the simple swan they still use.
Since then, they've had their share of good and bad times, raising three children and losing one; trying to make a living off animals whose keep rises faster than corn stalks on a hot August day.
"They're good people with good values," says Roger Edwards, livestock branding inspector for Quincy and Ellensburg. "They know what life's about. They know how to work. And if you can work, you can make a living."
For the Starzmans, the best times have mostly involved some combination of work, animals and friends - which is exactly what old-time branding is all about. This isn't some marketing myth created by urban execs who wouldn't know the difference between chicken nuggets and bulls' testicles if the morsels were deep fried in golden batter and served to them on a paper plate.
This is real food.
Even after a long day branding, there's enough to feed the largest appetites and biggest belt buckles on the ranch, and we're not talking about Power Bars sheathed in foil.
There, in the stainless-steel bowl on the Starzmans' ample kitchen counter, those are the gonads, also known as "Rocky Mountain oysters." Next to them, a crock pot of barbecued beef, a stack of hamburgers, buttered lima beans, chicken enchiladas, sesame broccoli salad, pulled pork, bowling-alley potatoes, lasagna, a casserole, mushroom and iceberg lettuce salad, macaroni salad, hot dogs, a whole turkey (stocked in the deep freeze since Thanksgiving, when turkey was 29 cents a pound), an olive relish tray, sauerkraut, marinated onions and cucumbers, Bernsteins' Chunky Blue Cheese dressing, Liquid Smoke, custard pie, huckleberry pie, cheesecake, strawberry chiffon cake, carrot cake, German chocolate cake, strawberry-pineapple-banana-sour cream whip, Cool Whip with lime Jello.
Everyone brought a covered dish.
"Neighbor-to-neighbor," says neighbor Marina Romary, proprietress of Notaras Lodge and Don's Restaurant down the road in Soap Lake. "That's how we do it (around here). Nobody here is hired. You get together to help each other and spend the whole day working cattle."
Dorothy knows of some folks who pay hands to help them move livestock. She knows of others, mostly from the coast, who pay to work on dude ranches.
She chuckles at the latter, can't afford the former. "But what are friends for?" she asks. "Besides, do you realize what kind of people you'd have if you had to pay them? You wouldn't have as nice people as we got."
Every year the Starzmans have done it this way. Every year, the rigs and horse trailers and covered dishes show up. Friends of theirs, friends of friends.
Dorothy bats her eyelashes. "It's just like: Y'all come! Y'know?"
THEY COME from the next ranch, the next county, Idaho, Montana, various spots along the trail of Dutch and Dot Starzmans' life.
There's 70-year-old Delmar Parrot and his gentle horse, Cody. There's Greg Gentle, a saddlemaker and banjo player from Newport, who knew the Starzmans' son-in-law in the Navy and just celebrated his 30th wedding anniversary with Judy, who plays guitar.
Greg: After 30 years, I'm lucky. I've got a good horse and a good dog and a good wife.
Cowboy dentist from Spokane: Well, I know I don't have a good horse, and I don't have a good dog, and I'm not so sure about my wife!
Over there, with the long sideburns, black cowboy hat and trophy buckle, that's Doug Jerred and his daughter Mandy, home from Germany with her Air Force husband and their new baby.
The cowboy riding a half-hat taller than the others? Bud King. The height comes from his walnut horse Snip, at 1,350 pounds, the biggest horse in the corral. King, himself, is one of the area's biggest cattlemen, at one time running more than 2,000 head. At 68, he's turned much of the operation over to his sons, the third generation to use the family's flying horseshoe brand. Several years ago, they switched to chutes to brand their herd of French Charolais, but Bud still comes to the Starzmans' every spring to rope and ride and trade local news.
"Ross died, you know," he tells Marina Romary, leaning over the fence.
"No, I didn't know that."
"We used to have breakfast and then just one morning he didn't come. He was dead."
"I'll be damned. Well, we're losing a lot of people."
Bud King gave Hughie Reynolds his first pony, Cocoa, back when Hughie's father was managing the King ranch and Hughie was a boy, the third generation of a Montana rodeo dynasty. Now 45, Hughie is the quickest, calmest roper in the Starzmans' corral.
"It's a reflex, natural," Hughie says of his graceful technique. "The smoother you can make it, by rhythm and timing and positioning your horse, the better off you are."
To the uneducated eye, the half-minute it takes to rope and brand a calf flashes by as a dusty blur. Actually, it's cowboy choreography.
The trick, Reynolds says, is to read the cattle. Sort one calf off by riding into its head so it veers into a zone, 5 to 8 feet away, with a clear path to the fire.
Position the far tip of your loop over the center of the calf's back. Time the swing so the loop hits the ground when one hind foot is in the air. Then, when the calf steps its other hind foot into your trap, lift the slack to tighten the loop around the calf's legs, dally a couple turns of rope around your saddle horn and drag the calf to the ground crew, slow and steady.
At least, that's the theory. In practice, it gets messy with riders milling around, animals bunched up in the corners, a calf flailing its loose leg, one cowboy cutting off another in the commotion. Hats fly. Dust billows. Or, worse yet, all's quiet because no one can catch a calf. Everyone and his cousin has something to say.
"Hey!" the waiting ground crew hollers, "What's wrong with this picture?"
Commentator cowboy Baxter Black: "You place the cowboy on an unreliable vehicle that will buck him over the fence and pit him against another beast with hooves like granite, horns like daggers and the disposition of an assistant principal. Obviously, the cowboy is going to have to be quick, if nothing else, because he's outweighed and outnumbered and some would say, equal in intellect. How can we make that worse? Let's tie them together with a 35-foot unbreakable nylon rope. OK, we've got the makings of a wreck."
That risk is what gives life to old-time brandings, the cowboy poet says. Squeeze chutes are for civilians.
"Let's say you're running a bunch of calves through a calf table," Black says. "You can get hurt there. Say you mash your finger. You wince. But there's no story. It's like trimming your fingernails and you cut a little too deep."
So why don't more ranchers brand their cattle the old-fashioned way?
"Most people don't have that ability to go out like the Starzmans and get enough friends to ride and drag 'em to the fire," says branding inspector Alexander. "We don't have saddle horses and we don't rope good enough, so we put them through the chute."
Old-time branding isn't dying. It's dwindling, like a creek toward the end of summer. All around, there's less open range and fewer cattle grazing on it. Twenty years ago, the state had 25 percent more cattle than the 1.2 million head counted this year. There were 22,000 cattle ranches, a third more than today.
Some ranchers retired, others sold to developers, a younger generation left for college or to seek their city fortunes. In the forests, the feds tightened up on grazing rights to help protect the environment. In American kitchens and markets, beef consumption has slid over the decades, though it's increased 6 percent the past two years.
In this shrinking modern landscape, old-time ranchers like the Starzmans stand out.
They have a computer, but Dorothy tracks her cattle's breeding and lineage mostly with ballpoint in a lined notebook: #262 had no milk for her calf this year; #127 had twins. She has a bunch of old cows she ought to sell off because they eat but no longer bear calves, but she keeps them around anyway - after 18 years they've become pets.
Once the calves have been entered in Dorothy's notebook, they travel a road part Old West, part high-tech. A few weeks after the branding, a couple guys with a video camera showed up to film the calves and their mothers. This summer, they'll broadcast the calf videos on satellite TV over the Galaxy Channel along with information about what type of feed the animals have been on, how many vitamins, hormones, vaccinations and estimated weight at delivery.
The big buyers will head to Winnamucca, Nevada, to watch the videos during a steak feed, and then they'll bid over the Internet.
This spring, average-weight heifers brought in 74 cents on the pound.
MEANWHILE, back at the ranch, the party is in full swing.
Slim Jim Francis smokes Marlboro 100s, unfiltered, and soaks up others' tales about his bareback days, how he was a national finals type back in the '60s when he lived on thin prize money and Copenhagen tobacco until he got thrown and broke his leg in three places.
The stories get wilder as the afternoon lingers and the beer and Black Velvet flow, something about the trade of a dog that needed eye surgery for an out-of-whack gun ("and it wasn't even MY dog I traded, it was my brother's!"); a roper who lost his thumb at the weekend rodeo when it got caught in his rope; the legendary trick roper Monty Montana who could build a loop large enough to rope eight steers and was invited to the White House to meet President Ford.
By dark, some are sleepy, others rowdy, and on the counter, there's a big bottle of Tums to be chewed like after-dinner mints.
Dorothy pulls out her gutbucket bass, leans into the broomstick, thumps the clothesline and swings her rusty-hinge voice into a rollicking tune about chickens. The notes twang like rain drops on scab rock. Bonnie kicks off her shoes and plucks bass, Greg on banjo, Judy on guitar.
Upstairs, Dutch is fast asleep. At 4 a.m., he'll rise to sort and drive to pasture 224 calves, the Starzman swan brand healing on their right hips.
Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.
|Cover Story||Plant Life||On Fitness||Northwest Living||Taste||Now & Then||Sunday Punch|