The following is a story provided to us by 27-year-old Carson Bennitt of Claremont, CA about his great grandpa and great great uncle, two self-made men who overcame incredible circumstances to make better lives for themselves.
Many stories in a nation’s history are not recorded in the history books, but are nevertheless just as inspirational and remarkable as the ones that were. This is one of those untold stories.
A harrowing journey to California in a new Model T
The 1920’s were a remarkable time in American history, full of post-war optimism, new industries, and a spirit of industriousness and work ethic. The dynamic and rapidly changing times inevitably led to some great stories of human achievement.
Such is true of when George Bennitt returned from WWI to a town called Lewistown, Montana. He and his younger brother, Russell, decided to buy a Ford Model T and head off to California, where their mother, Julia, was living and maintaining a boarding house she owned. A woman named Cora was staying at the house, and she would go on to become George’s wife.
The Model T was the first mass-produced car and a creation of Henry Ford, an American entrepreneur who founded Ford Motor Co., and sparked the rise of affordable consumer goods.
It was designed for travel over diverse terrain, as most roads were dirt, so the brothers had made a sound choice for a car that would carry them through their westward journey.
But the brothers were in for a frightening experience when they arrived at the notorious Donner Pass, the area of the Sierra Nevada mountain range named for the famous group of wagon travelers that were stranded there in 1846, also trying to make it to California.
George and Russell soon found that their new car, dependable as it was, could not make it through the treacherous Donner’s Pass in forward gear. But they were not going to let that stop them from taking their trusted Model T through the harrowing mountain pass in the most genius of ways. So what did the resourceful brothers do? They turned it around and drove in reverse!
The reverse gear “provided a lower ratio and better mechanical advantage,” and though it was much slower and more stressful this way, it was the saving grace that got them through the pass and on to California.
The reverse gear ‘provided a lower ratio and better mechanical advantage’
George and Russell’s mother was a native of Norway but lived in California, which is where the brother’s stayed while working for the Hollywood Reporter. Both George and Russell had previously worked at the Lewistown Democrat News back home in Montana, where they had gained much of their newspaper experience.
George was especially fond of writing and of the English Language, which led his interest in journalism. He was self-taught, never having attended college, but had remarkable talent for writing and especially news reporting. His natural talent and drive surely impressed the editors at the newspapers.
He was self-taught, never having attended college
But George and Russell had even bigger aspirations from the beginning. They set out to build a publishing empire. “George and Russell felt it was their destiny to own and publish their own newspapers,” said Jim Bennitt, George’s middle son. “The first was a paper in Lordsburg, NM. Later they bought the newspaper in Holtville, California and then later the paper in El Centro…” They also owned a newspaper in Sweetwater, Texas.
It’s no surprise that they were as successful as they were in business. George learned the value of a dollar early in his life. His father was a doctor and as a young boy, George had to have his tonsils removed, it was his father who performed the operation, with no anesthesia. But there was a special twist: “His father had given him a silver dollar to hold and told him that if he did not cry during the operation, he could keep the dollar—and he did! He was around 6 years old at the time,” said Jim Bennitt, recalling the story. Sadly, George’s father died of tuberculosis when the boys were young, and would not see the success that they would one day have.
Incredible that these brothers had nearly lost it all trying to cross the mountains to head west, but persevered through grit and ingenuity to ultimately fulfill their destiny.
From the Great War, and back home to Montana. From Montana to California in a Ford, nearly stranded in the snowy mountains, and then on to build a successful newspaper business. These self-made men, brothers, and business partners, are reminders to us all that we should never give up in life, even when it seems dire. Our dreams will guide us, and take us as far as we want to go—even if we have to drive in reverse!
Here are more photos of the Bennitts: