Driftwood Ranch began over 50 years ago ...

Charlie Arnt of Driftwood Ranch: A Hollywood Character Actor and His Charolais Cattle

by Kathy Peth

Charlie Arnt fell in love with Charolais cattle and the San Juan Islands of Puget Sound.

From the wisdom of looking back 50 of 'em, it seems clear that the years in the middle of the 20th-century were the center of major changes in the cattle industry. Trends and cycles in a variety of areas, including some that didn't seem to have anything to do with the production of beef, coalesced into an explosion of change, challenge and opportunity.

The American cattle industry's improvement impulses began in the 19th century with the importation of English cattle to be crossed with native range cattle - "range" in looks as well as living accommodations. After the Angus, Hereford and Shorthorn breeds had proved they could adapt to America's variety of grasslands, cattlemen worked at refining them, while at the same time market conditions were supporting a shorter, more-compact (fatter) animal.

But as the 20th century reached its mid-point, after generations of shrinking cattle, bigger was suddenly better, cross-breeding was "in" again, and science was proving the wonders of F1 heterosis.

The new mainframe computers aided the collection of genetic data that led to comparative statistics, crunched them into Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) and made them available to ever cattleman. Using that information, cattlemen could judge which bulls might work best in their herds, and the collection and successful freezing and transportation of semen made it possible for the smallest breeder to use their choice of the best bulls in the country.

As is sometimes the case, such history can be encapsulated in one person's experience. In this case, that of a Hollywood character actor named Charlie Arnt. Born in 1906 in Michigan City, Ind., son of a banker, grandson of a banker, and a farmer, Arnt's acting career spanned silent film to television, while his career as a cattleman took him from the pastures of his grandfather at a time when every farmer had a bull with his cows, to a time when the "bull" drove in a pickup, dressed as a man with a long, plastic sleeve.

Charlie Arnt's acting career began in the mid-20s when he was at Princeton University in New Jersey. Princeton's Triangle Club was considered the best collegiate theatrical club in the United States, and Arnt was president.

"We had our own train," Arnt remembered.

The troop toured as far as St. Louis, Mo., played in Washington, and at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

After Princeton, Arnt spent a year traveling around the world with a classmate, and then, following family tradition, he worked for a bank in Chicago, Ill.

In 1928, fellow Princeton actors Josh Logan, Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullivan, among others, started a summer theater at Cape Cod. It was going pretty well when the stock market crashed in 1929.

"I remember that one day 13 banks failed in Chicago," said Arnt, "and I figured it would be just as good to be acting as working in a bank."

So he joined the University Players and eventually hooked his future to Hollywood, Calif. Arnt's film career stretched nearly 30 years. His filmography listed 117 films, although his personal count was up to 250. He also made numerous appearances on the small screen, including episodes of "Sugarfoot," "Maverick," "The Rifleman," "Zane Grey Theatre," and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents".

Arnt's first film credit was the Eddie Cantor musical comedy, Roman Scandals, in 1933. The film is still alive and on video, chiefly because prestarlet Lucille Ball was in the chorus line. Legend has it that the chorus-line scenes were shot at night, with no studio big-wig interference, because the ladies involved were nude-reason enough to check out this video.

"I played the wine taster on this great big set in a toga," Arnt said. "I tasted the wine and fell down on the floor from about 8:00 in the morning until 6:00 at night. I was so bruised, but I got $50 for it, and $50 in those days...my apartment cost me only $35 a month, $15 would take care of a whole week's food in a good restaurant, and gasoline was nine cents a gallon...that was pretty good pay."

After WWII and through the 1950s, while Arnt was making movies like Blondie's Lucky Day and My Favorite Brunette (with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour), the country's beef-cattle industry was facing huge changes. Commercial demand for beef tallow, more commonly known as fat, declined and consumers noticed they were trimming a lot from the outside of their T-bones.

Packers started discounting over-finished cattle, and cattle breeders noticed when their leaner animals were bringing more money than their traditional ones. Nothing gets a cattleman's attention faster than a check. Growth and vigor became the watchwords of forward-thinking beef producers.

Riding to the rescue, like the white knights of medieval times, were white cattle developed as early as the first millennium, in an east-central region of France called Charolles, although white cattle of the Charolais type may date to ancient Italy.

European cattle had always been bred to be multipurpose animals that were good for milk, meat and work, with a premium on size and growthiness. Since even some French cattlemen admitted they occasionally chose size over refinement, the Charolais cattle that caught the eye of the North American cattlemen were big hummers-medium-to large-framed bulls running around 2,500 pounds, and cows ranging from 1,600 to 2,000 pounds - just the thing to inject size back into American cattle.

Charolais cattle had arrived in Mexico between the world wars, thanks to a Mexican industrialist of French ancestry, Jean Pugibet, who had taken note of the cattle while serving with the French army in World War I.

In 1930, he had ten heifers and two bulls brought to Mexico. He imported more cattle in 1931 and 1937. King Ranch in Texas brought two of his bulls in 1936 and the white cattle gradually moved north, proving their value when crossed on hot-weather Brahmas. But in the 1940s, an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease in Mexico slammed the import gates shut.

After World War II, about the time Charlie Arnt was having his best seasons ever, with 36 films between 1945 and 1949, he and his family began looking for a place to spend the summers. California was becoming increasingly crowded, and Arnt wanted a change. He called a cousin, who had been a pilot in the war, and asked, "If you could go anyplace for the summer, where would you go?"

The cousin remembered flying over some islands in Washington state and thought that, "They looked just marvelous."

Depending upon the count at high tide, Washington's San Juan Islands are a cluster of 172 tops of underwater mountains scattered between the northwest coast of the state and Vancouver Island, Canada, in the whale-filled waters of a three-way confluence of the Strait of Georgia, Canada, the Strait of Juan De Fuca, which is the salt water border between Canada and the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, and Puget Sound.

Orcas Island has the largest land mass of the group with 56.9 square miles, but cedes the county seat, Friday Harbor, to the next largest neighbor, San Juan Island. Orcas, San Juan, and two other islands, Lopez and Shaw, are serviced by Washington state ferry boats that run from the mainland at Anacortes. Each island also has its own air strip. Several smaller islands have sizable populations as well, but can only be reached by smaller boats or by air.

In 1946, the saddle-bag shaped Orcas was a sleepy place. Its largest claims to fame were a waterfront home built by Seattle shipbuilder Robert Moran, which is now the classy Rosario Resort and Spa, and the half-mile-high Mount Constitution. The island was also known for its sheep, fishing, fertile valleys and beaches, and as a strategic location for smuggling.

The Arnt family found mixed timber and grass meadow on Orcas' Grindstone Harbor. It was intended to be their summer retreat, but as the movie business waned for Arnt, the family stayed longer every year. They moved to the island permanently in 1950, although Arnt continued to commute to Hollywood until the early 1960s.

Arnt, a farmer at heart, nested in, raising chickens and squab, keeping a house cow and planting blueberries. He also built a nice little herd of Hereford cows, but he kept eyeing those white cattle from France.

He says, "Somehow, in the back of my mind, I've always known about the Charolais breed. We had a veterinarian who flew over from Bellingham, a big, husky, very interesting outgoing man, and he said, 'Charlie, someday they're going to be able to freeze semen, and when they do, that will revolutionize the dairy and beef industries.'

"I replied, 'Well, if they ever freeze the semen of a Charolais bull, get some and come over, and we'll breed some of these Hereford cows.'"

The breeding technique known as Artificial Insemination (A.I.) has been around for 700 years. The first reported instance was when an Arabian horse breeder transferred sperm, via sponge, from one mare to another in 1300. An Italian physiologist is credited with breeding a dog and an unspecified amphibian via artificial insemination in 1780. The first textbook on the subject, The Artificial Insemination of Farm Animals-no mention of amphibians-was published in 1945.

After veterinarians and researchers figured out how to collect the semen, the biggest problem with A.I., as noted by Arnt's veterinarian, was finding a way to preserve it. Various attempts to avoid freezer burn were being studied by 1949, and by 1957, the American Breeders Service was using liquid nitrogen. Things improved when the Cassous straw was developed in 1964. This, along with advances in the insulation of storage containers, led to the explosion of A.I. use.

Continuing with Arnt's experience with A.I., he says that freezer storage of bull semen "did transpire" and was actually revolutionizing the dairy business as well as the beef business. "The first outgoing veterinarian left," says Arnt, "and another veterinarian took over. He had this old plane and used to land on Bob Schoen's field. He came over 26 times to breed cows, and we got one calf out of it. That one we steered, because we wanted to get some (crossbred) heifers."

Arnt adds, "He didn't know very much about artificial breeding, and besides, that semen had to be taken out of the nitrogen and used within five minutes of being taken out. He had to fly from Bellingham, and the inseminator over there would take the semen out of the nitrogen, take it to his office, and put it in the refrigerator for two or three hours. It'd be about three or four hours before he'd get it here, so most of it would be gone. But that's how we got started."

Canada, promising rigid quarantine rules, made a deal with France, and Charolais cattle were ushered into the quarantine pens at Grosse Isle, Quebec, Canada, in 1967. Arnt had been waiting for this. He bought a bull in Missouri, some purebred Charolais heifers in Texas, and then a full French Charolais bull in Canada. That bull, Boxeur, had been bred by M. Jean Dessauny in Chevenon, France. It was calved there on Feb. 12, 1966. Now, as a two year old owned by Arnt's Driftwood Ranch, Boxeur won Grand Champion at Calgary in 1968.

"That," said Arnt with satisfaction, "was when we got committed to the cattle-breeding business."

English-breed imports were allowed into North America during the F&M quarantine, but no European cattle, which then were know as "exotic".

Arnt remembers that when he purchased Boxeur, "They put a restriction on our bull, and he had to stay in Canada for four years before we could get him. So we had to breed artificially entirely."

Arnt sent one of his employees, George Karageorges, to the nearest A.I. school, in Medoesto, Calif., and Karageorges came back the farm's expert.

At the Fort Keogh Livestock and Ranch Research Laboratory near Miles City, Mon., the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists had been studying the effects of line breeding Herefords. With the cooperation of purebred herd registries, they had begun to research a way to sort tons of performance information, in order to use it to evaluate the genetic influence of a particular animal. This line of investigation involved huge amounts of data and couldn't have been tackled without the computer. The figures that resulted were the foundation of today's Estimated Progeny Differences.

Arnt's champion bull, Boxeur, has sired 143 Canadian Charolais Assn. registered progeny, countless crossbred offspring, and has been assigned EPDs. His weaning weight EPD is listed as 10.0, indicating a tendency for growthiness, his yearling weight shows 8 .0 (ditto), and his birth weight is shown as 4.8. That number indicates larger than normal calves.

Now, after pages and pages of explanations of how to use EPDs for bull selection, with not one of them clear or easy to understand, it appears that a 4.8 in the birth-weight column would indicate more hands-on attention at calving time than "average." This is fine for older cows or Charolais cows, but for the blocky small Hereford and Angus cows of that time, these calves might have posed a problem.

The possibility of gob-stopper calves was an obstacle with all the "exotic" breeds in the first blush of cross-breeding, because generally, larger bulls were being used on cows that had been steadily bred for a lesser capacity. Such a train wreck did not escape notice by the breed registries, and those birthweight EPDs were the first to be addressed.

Since then, active breed associations have pretty much conquered the problem. The current Charolais average EPDs list birth weight as 1.4, weaning weight at 19.6, and yearling weight as 34.2.

Years have passed since Charlie Arnt of Driftwood Ranch developed a Charolais dynasty on a small island in Washington's Puget Sound, but the genetics of his carefully chosen animals still influence the white French cattle that North American cattlemen adopted as their own. In building his herd, Arnt used all the technology and experience available, and he rode the crest of modern beef production technology.

Charlie Arnt died on Orcas Island in 1990, after 84 years of life he thoroughly enjoyed. I wonder what he'd think of ultrasound backfat monitors, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, microchips and DNA tests of a few hairs from a bull's tail.

As surely as horse-drawn farm equipment has given way to the Global Positioning System guided tractor, the cattle industry will undergo more changes and challenges. The era we're now experiencing probably offers as much opportunity as Charlie Arnt's era. Who will look back on our decisions?

Driftwood Ranch is still owned by the Arnt family.