America’s Most Wanted Bull
The life and legacy of the unofficial father of American Angus beef
By Erin McHenry
I’m at a birthday party for a bull. There’s a huge canvas tent — like the ones people rent for graduation parties — standing in the front yard of my grandfather’s childhood home in Denison, Iowa. About a hundred gruff, Wranglers-clad farmers sit in neat rows beneath the occasionally flapping canvas. There’s a very low-budget replica Civil War military camp set up behind the podium. Someone is giving a speech, presumably about the bull.
I’m not paying attention. I’m trying to sign the guest book except a volunteer is trying to sell me an American Angus Association shirt with a picture of a bull on the front. I decline; my dad’s already bought me one as a Christmas present, I assure her, but I’ll take a complimentary donut.
I make my way back to the tent. Someone else is at the microphone now. “You’ll have to excuse me,” an older woman says. “I’ve forgotten my teeth at the hotel and I can’t talk very well.”
My sister Abby turns to me, eyes wide, stifling a laugh. And we both know this is only going to get worse. We’ve got an entire afternoon of birthday festivities yet to come. But everything about this party has to be a joke, including the fact that the birthday bull himself has been dead for roughly 100 years.
The McHenry Family Legacy
My great-great-great grandfather William Alexander McHenry (the first) was born in 1841, in Allegheny, N.Y. He moved out to Rockford, Ill., where he joined the Illinois 8th Infantry, a troop that fired the first shot at Gettysburg, tracked down John Wilkes Booth and guarded Lincoln’s casket. He returned to the Midwest with just $300 to his name and settled down in the small farming community of Denison, Iowa, where he accidentally spawned an entire industry.
In 1897, W.A. McHenry made a voyage to Scotland, the homeland of his ancestors, where he purchased some Aberdeen Angus cattle. Fifteen years later, he had bred what is considered one of the greatest sires of all time: Earl Marshall.
Today, all but 964 of the 3,000,700 registered Angus cattle in America trace back to Earl Marshall, says Angus beef historian and farmer Steve Burress. That’s more than 99 percent of Angus cattle alive today. And of the 16.8 million cattle ever registered in the American Angus Association, more than 15 million have Earl Marshall in their pedigree.
I guess that means my family is responsible for that juicy sirloin on your plate. You’re welcome, America.
Life of a Bull
It’s believed that Earl Marshall’s bloodlines trace back to cattle bred by the unofficial poster-boys of Aberdeen Angus: Scotland’s Hugh Watson and Sir George Macpherson-Grant. Watson’s cattle tended to be a little thicker than usual; Macpherson-Grant’s were bigger. When crossbred, they produced huskier cattle overall, Earl Marshall included.
“Earl Marshall was not the show-winner,” Burress says. “He’d generally come in about second place every time to his stall mates. I don’t think he ever won a championship. It’s not that he wasn’t a good bull, and he didn’t have show quality, but at the time people didn’t recognize what he was.”
Right before my great-great-great grandpa died, he sold his entire herd of cattle to nearby farmers Earl Ryan and Charles Escher of Escher & Ryan farms in Harlan, Iowa. It took them a while to notice Earl Marshall, too. At first they had him living in the quarantine pasture, where the lowest of the low bred with the lowest of the low. Soon enough, he was producing strong, fatty calves: exactly what farmers look for.
“Earl Marshall’s this diamond-in-the-rough story,” Burress says. “Hardly anybody saw the value in him. They kind of overlooked him, and yet he was like the cream, rising to the top. He was so good as a sire. That’s what makes those cattle breed on so well. There’s something there with those cattle that they just keep breeding on and breeding on.”
At that time, farmers couldn’t send semen to breed with other cows; the bull needed to travel. Earl Marshall never made it outside Iowa, but his son Blackcap Revolution did. Blackcap was the 1923 international grand champion bull, and with the title came demand. Escher & Ryan sent Blackcap up to Canada and as far as California. From there the bloodlines continued to spread.
Beef For Dinner
But really Earl can’t take all the credit. America’s love affair with beef — and its brief breakup during the Depression — is just as responsible.
America’s obsession with beef stems from our country’s origin: Great Britain. For centuries, the British associated beef with affluence and status, said Wilson J. Warren, a professor at Western Michigan University specializing in food history. In those days, beef was hard to come by and incredibly expensive. Refrigeration didn’t exist, making production, distribution and consumption much more difficult.
“Eating a particular kind of food symbolized things beyond just the food itself,” Warren said. “It was a patriotic thing, an indicator of affluence, a sign that you had kind of ‘made it’ in life. So if you reached a certain kind of middle-class status, then you could afford to eat beef, say more than just on a holiday.”
But time passed and the assembly line was introduced, meat packaging became possible and prices began to drop. Soon beef was available to anyone, especially ground beef. Hamburgers became a part of everyday life, taking their place as a backyard barbecue staple.
But everything changed after the stock market crashed in the 1930s. People were timid spenders. There was less demand for beef, so farmers started crossbreeding the smaller cattle to reduce the costs of feeding and production. The pure Angus breed nearly died out.
“They bred them so small that the cattle started having problems,” Burress says. “They couldn’t have calves, couldn’t rebreed, weren’t efficient and lost some of the maternal mothering possibility. Not only were the farmers selecting small cattle, but then they had some genetic anomalies like dwarfism.”
In the post-WWII era, the population boomed and demand picked up again. Only a handful of farmers had stuck to tradition and kept their cattle large, Burress says. He remembers one particular family from South Dakota that sold an Earl Marshall bull for $700. Within a few months, they resold the bull for $15,000.
Not long after, artificial insemination was introduced, and the Earl Marshall bloodlines spread even further.
“It’s like a snowball rolling down a hill,” Burress says. “It picked up more as it went along and nationwide, next thing you know, you start seeing all these bulls show up with Earl Marshall in their pedigree.”
Burress noticed it and was curious as to just how far the bull’s DNA reached. He asked a colleague at the American Angus Association to run some numbers in its database to see where Earl Marshall showed up on the different pedigrees.
And the answer was more than 15 million.
King of the Pasture
“So you want to hear a story about Earl Marshall?” my uncle Brian asks over Thanksgiving.
“So Earl Marshall and this other bull were standing at the top of a hill,” he says with a stone-serious face.
My aunt tries to interject, and he glares at her. “Excuse me, are you telling the story?”
She laughs. “No, go on.”
“As I was saying, they’re at the top of this hill. So the other bull said, ‘Hey Earl, let’s run down the hill and have sex with that cow!’ But Earl Marshall said, ‘I’ll walk down the hill and have sex with all of them.’ And he did.”
Needless to say, Earl Marshall was a Casanova of the beef industry.
What’s In A Name?
At any marketplace or grocery store, an invisible line of credibility seems to divide the meat. One side holds a stack bearing the Certified Angus Beef sticker fixed to the corner of the plastic-wrapped packaging. The other side holds Angus beef, too, but there’s no quality assurance brand to boost its rep.
That’s the beauty of branding. Certified Angus Beef (CAB) is a stamp of assurance, but it wasn’t until 1978 that the American Angus Association created the brand to give customers guaranteed flavor and tenderness. And getting that stamp isn’t easy. It requires passing 10 different quality tests to earn CAB status.
“All we own is the logo and the registered trademark,” says Melissa Brewer, CAB director of public relations. “But we’re established to work with every piece of the beef community from beef to plate to make sure that we’re bringing high quality beef to the table, and supporting those who bring it to the table to market it to consumers.”
And they do their job well. According to the American Angus Association’s 2013 Annual Report, market research found that the CAB logo has 92 percent recognition, an increase of 5 percent.
Having that special sticker doesn’t just translate status, but wealth, too. Farmers get about an additional $40 per cow when they meet CAB quality standards.
“They put forth concerted effort to guarantee they are making high quality cattle,” Brewer says, “and they’re rewarded because it earns our logo, CAB brand, and that ultimately puts a little bit extra premium in their pocket.”
And Americans are willing to pay for it. In 2013 alone, 865 million pounds of CAB brand beef were sold in the U.S., record sales for the seventh consecutive year in a row.
As of 2012, the American Beef Industry was worth $85 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. It predicts 2013’s consumption of beef per person will reach 56.5 pounds annually. To put it another way: More than 35 billion hamburgers will be consumed by the U.S. each year.
It’s time for lunch at Earl’s birthday party.
“Oh my goodness, you’re a McHenry,” a woman observes while waiting behind me in line for some CAB hamburgers (surprise!). “It’s a pleasure to meet you!” She’s writing a book about my family and the bull. So is Burress.
The couple in front of me turns around excitedly, saying, they too are McHenrys — distant relatives of mine from South Dakota.
When I search the current American Angus Association’s online registration database, the names “McHenry,” “Earl Marshall” or “Blackcap Revolution” come up with pages of results. Having the name “Earl Marshall” associated with your cattle gives them status in the beef industry, like studying at Harvard University or having a painting on display in the Museum of Modern Art. Earl Marshall has meat cred.
He’s given my family enough credit to be called on now and then. We make appearances and show up for banquets and, apparently, birthday parties. My family doesn’t even farm. We live in the suburbs. We have no understanding of the beef industry. Yet the name “McHenry” has power, and the legacy has been handed down to my dad, his siblings and now, to me. Success by association.
As I drove away from the Earl Marshall celebration, I started to look past the absurdity of a birthday party organized for a dead bull. He’s responsible for countless jobs today and millions of plates of beef every year. Earl Marshall was a big deal. He is a big deal. In fact, maybe this party was underselling him a bit.
Earl Marshall died at the age of 15, more than twice the average lifespan of purebred Angus cattle today, Burress says. In an attempt to lumber down to the river to cool off on a hot day in July, he fell in a mud puddle and got stuck. Being old and worn out from his playboy escapades, he couldn’t regain his strength, and died shortly after. I envisioned him dying more valiantly, leaving this world in style fit for a king, but I suppose it rarely happens that way.
There’s speculation that Earl Marshall’s head was stuffed by a taxidermist in California somewhere. They’ve never been able to find it, but I’d like to imagine him looking down from a rancher’s fireplace mantle, surveying his empire with approval.
Photos courtesy of USDA & Erin McHenry
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