Virgil E. "Red" Berry taking notes for a horse race,
May 13, 1947.
The Legend of "Red Berry"
By Tom Rickoff
Red Berry and his horse
From bootlegging and organized gambling to the Texas Senate, "Red" Berry settled in San Antonio in the early 1930’s, bringing with him a fast mind and style that made him a unique character in the city’s history.
Virgil Edward Berry was born February 27, 1899, one of thirteen children born in a log cabin on a farm in Fort Smith, Arkansas. He only attended school through the seventh grade, and then became an office clerk in Fort Smith where be was quickly dubbed "Red" because of his stock of red hair. He went on to work for the Union Pacific Railroad as a machinist and then enlisted with the U.S. Army. His introduction to San Antonio was during a 10-month assignment at Fort Sam Houston where he was an M.P.
In 1929 he settled permanently in the Alamo City in what he fondly called the "recreational business". He purchased a number of horses to race at the old Alamo Downs and indulged in high stakes poker playing from $2 to $5,000 a hand. His lifetime motto, "I never cheated a man," was basically true when applied to head-to head poker playing only. He really did not need to cheat because he only played with the cream of San Antonio’s gamblers and in the long haul was generally able to prevail through superior skill.
He opened The Turf Club that housed a beer hall, restaurant, cocktail lounge and a lavish gambling casino with mirrored walls, crystal chandeliers and thick carpets beneath the dice tables. From April 1934 through 1957, politicians looking for fame repeatedly targeted the club. Eventually the raids and seizures of gaming equipment put a damper on the operation and when the county was looking for additional office space downtown Red offered his Turf Club building for $120,000. Throughout the 30’s and 40’s Red was "boss gambler" in San Antonio.
After the close of the Turf Club he moved his operation to La Vernia, Texas until the 40’s, when one day he sat down to play a little "pitch" with one of his favorite marks, John Sullivan. Red walked away with what is known today as the Red Berry Mansion and estate. Red bulldozed out a rise on the property, threw up an earthen damn, diverted the flow of his well and soon had a beautiful 15-acre lake complete with a small island.
Overlooking the lake, Berry constructed one of San Antonio's most unique residences, a three story, 12,000-square foot mansion, which resembled a Riviera chateau and was at the time valued at $125,000. Berry was extremely proud of his home and imported many of the material used in its construction. Designed not only as a home, Berry’s plush mansion became the haunt of San Antonio’s wealthy gamblers and therefore the political football of law enforcement-minded politicians. Raids ensued, as did Red’s lavish gambling parties, through the 50’s and into the early 60’s. Red went on to have a successful career as a politician, first entering the race for Police and Fire Commissioner in 1947.
In 1960, he won the primary and general election for State Representative 60th District Place 4. In 1962 and 1964, Berry was re-elected and in 1966, at the age of 70, he was selected to that State Senate, 19th district. Red’s platform always pushed for pari-mutuel betting even though he was never able to convince Texans to vote for it. Red sold his property and home in 1973 to Walter Corrigan, then the President of Sommers Drug. In 2002, Bill Tidwell, owner of Cardell Cabinetry, purchased the estate from Corrigan, refurbishing the mansion to its original splendor and re-opened it to the public as San Antonio’s most beautiful and unique special events facility.