Beyond Luck

By: Betsy Lumbye

About the Author

Betsy Lumbye is a California-based writer who worked three decades in newspapers around the United States, most recently as executive editor of The Fresno Bee. Originally from Virginia, she’s an honors graduate of the University of Virginia. She counts dressage horses and rescue dogs among her immediate family.


A crowd of 5,000 packed the dock in Seattle as the Klondikers emerged from the ship. “Show us the gold!” rose the chant. The miners obliged, raising their sacks to rowdy cheers. Streets were so thick with people, streetcars couldn’t budge. Drivers were quitting anyway, like working men around the Northwest. Even Seattle’s mayor walked off the job, bound for the gold country. The prospectors’ rags-to-riches stories resonated deeply in a region reeling from the 1890s depression. Jobless men were camping on beaches, living off clams and whatever they could scavenge. Like them, the miners were scruffy and weather-beaten, many thin and malnourished. But those leaving the ship had found a way out of poverty. Now their toughest challenge was lifting their suitcases stuffed with gold. Bearing the heaviest load of all was Clarence Berry, who’d left Selma, California, nearly penniless. This was his triumphant return, and soon his name would be everywhere.


Among the early canal diggers were the Berrys, a family who’d left Mendocino County to escape the bloodiest family feud in California history. Their labors brought them prosperity for a time, but the depression of the 1890s left them poor again.

With nothing to lose, four Berry sons made a few trips to Alaska and then the Klondike region of Canada’s Yukon in hopes of striking gold. Amazingly, they did. They and about 80 others, returning to Seattle and San Francisco in July 1897 on ships weighed down by boxes, oil cans and suitcases heavy with gold, launched the frenzied Klondike Gold Rush, the last great adventure of the 19th Century. The most famous brother, Clarence Berry, made headlines around the world because he found more gold than anyone and because he did it on his honeymoon. He and his young wife, famous thereafter as the “bride of the Klondike,” had traveled 600 miles by dogsled and by foot, over mountains, frozen lakes and the raging Yukon River, to reach the Klondike and their fortune.

Most Klondike millionaires lost their money to women, whiskey and insanity. The Berrys, led by Clarence, were unique because they grew their fortune exponentially. Clarence decided to look for oil in the wasteland that was Kern County, California at the time, and beyond all odds, he struck it rich again, just as oil was becoming a hot commodity with the advent of kerosene lamps and then the automobile. The Berrys were unbelievably lucky, but as the title suggests, their fortune was built on more than good fortune. Clarence Berry in particular had uncanny timing and instincts, a winning way with people and a seemingly endless capacity for hard work. He was unfailingly generous with his family and friends, too.

For the next thirty years, the Berrys solidified their gold and oil empires and had a rollicking good time. They bought billiard parlors in Los Angeles, racehorses and baseball teams. Henry Berry, Clarence’s younger brother, owned the Los Angeles Giants and the San Francisco Seals in the fledgling Pacific Coast League, keeping the league afloat in hard times and even breaking the color barrier for a time.

After Clarence and Henry, the most flamboyant of the brothers, died in 1929 and 1930, the family largely remained under the radar, but the fortune and the business they started grew beyond anything they could have imagined.

Berry Petroleum, which went public on the New York Stock Exchange in the 1980s, sold this year for $5 billion to Linn Energy. Incredibly, the Berry family, so famous once, is little known today, even in Fresno County, where they once lived.

The Berry brothers’ story, told in “Beyond Luck,” is framed by their oldest living heir, Peter Bennett, a 91-year-old former oil man and cattle rancher living in near-anonymity in Fresno, despite the millions he gives to charity. Other family members are scattered around the country, but Peter came here to ranch after a childhood in Beverly Hills and Palm Springs. His story is peopled with celebrities including Don Ameche, Peter Lorre and Jack Benny, a father who was awarded the Croix de Guerre as an ambulance driver for the French in World War I and a mother who became the confidant and biographer of the great California poet Robinson Jeffers.

The core of the book, between the bookends of Peter Bennett’s recollections, is told in three parts – water, gold and oil – signifying the earthy sources of the family’s wealth and the history of the great American West itself. The book is laced with historical context and humor, making it a rich and satisfying read.