Turning Points

History of Moraga from Joaquin Moraga to James Irvine

In 1835 Joaquin Moraga and his cousin Juan Bernal formally requested a land grand from Governor Alvarado in return for “long, unpaid military service”. This was a common practice since Mexico passed a law in 1828 authorizing such grants. Moraga and Bernal were granted Rancho Laguna de los Palos Colorados in 1841.

The Moragas occupied temporary shelters and grazed cattle on the rancho long before title was granted to them, maybe as early as 1828. It was not until 1841 that the “Decree of Concession” granting Moraga and Bernal the land would finally be issued.

Moraga grazed approximately 1,000 head of cattle and 4,000 horses on their grant of 13,316 acres.Water for the livestock was obtained at the pond or laguna which was on the present-day site of Campolindo High School. The colorados or redwood grove did not interest Moraga.He did give permission to cut the redwoods in Canyon and the land was simply overrun by trespassers who went to work destroying the magnificent groves in a rush to supply the growing demand for lumber. The stand of redwoods was also used by sailors as a landmark to turn into the San Francisco Bay when sailing the coast of California. In 1853, Canyon was sold to Elam Brown, founder of Lafayette for $4,000. Much of the wood was used to build the homes of San Francisco and Sacramento. The population of Moraga grew to hundreds with these lumberjacks and the town became a rough, tough place to live. An early election in California saw more votes in Moraga than any other town in California. Courter’s Store was the only general store in town, located at the corner of Larch and Canyon Roads. Gun fights broke out often in Moraga with this wild group. On Sundays races were held around the store. It is rumored a man was hung in Moraga for stealing a horse.

In 1841 Moraga built a two-room house (kitchen separate from the main house) at its present location above Miramonte High School. Ceiling beams and flooring were made from local redwoods.It was built from bricks made of adobe mud with straw, manure and leather pieces in the bricks. This spot was chosen because an abundant spring or running water was nearby.The entire valley could be seen from this site because it was devoid of the many trees, shrubbery or flowers seen today in Moraga. Intruders, intent on stealing cattle or horses, could easily be seen approaching. Fandangos or parties were frequently held and families came to celebrate from as far away as San Jose to eat, dance and sing with the Moraga family.

Cattle were raised for the hides mainly. Once cattle were slaughtered, the hides were treated, stored and later sold at the Oakland markets. Also, hides/strips were used for furniture, fencing, clothing, shoes, etc.

The vast open areas of the rancho were also used for planting grains. This product was thrashed using 60-70 horses being driven around and treading on the grain. It was then winnowed on the spot by throwing it up with forks where the wind separated the chaff from the straw. Many Indians worked on the rancho and may have even made the bricks for the Adobe.

After the Gold Rush, disappointed gold seekers, adventurers and Yankee farmers moved down from the hills of the Mother Lode area and began squatting on Joaquin Moraga’s land. These squatters built homes on select land and then tried to say the land was “unclaimed”. However, when California became a state all Mexican citizens in California were made US citizens. Unfortunately, this law was reversed, and the Moraga family had to prove ownership of their land. This process took 17 years and in that time many squatters were well established in the Valley. These early homesites can still be seen in the hills around Moraga.

The Moragas only ranched like this until Joaquin’s death in 1855. By then the rancho had begun to dismantle.The squatters settled on Moraga-Bernal select plots, built houses, started to farm and went to Martinez to register their selections as “unclaimed” lots. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, “Mexicans should be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty and property and secured in the free exercise of their religion without restriction.” This gave American citizenship to Mexicans. However, this ruling was reversed by the Act of March 3, 1851 and now it was the responsibility of the grantees to prove the validity of their Mexican deeds.

The squatters stayed. The Moraga family now faced enormous expenses for attorney fees, grant surveys, court costs, witnesses, lodging, transportation and other expenses trying to prove their land title. Much of the land had mortgages as the Moraga children had borrowed money from banks and could not repay.

Joaquin Moraga understood little of the law. With the exception of six parcels, the old rancho had become the exclusive property of New York land speculator and lawyer Horace Carpentier.

Carpentier had been hired to remove the squatters from Moraga’s land.Due to lack of funds to pay Carpentier’s fees, the Moraga family turned over their land as payment to the notorious lawyer.

This one-man ownership by Carpentier set the demographic pattern for Moraga for the next 75 years. By 1860, the Moraga family was gone, big cattle grazing changed to smaller squatter dairies, farms and ranches. A number of squatters did acquire their land legally.Some remained as sharecroppers after Carpentier, or one of his relatives acting as his agent, bought them out.These farms started just below the present Rheem Shopping Center, went over the hill to St. Mary’s Road and down St. Mary’s Road to Camino Pablo.What farmers did not grow they purchased at Courter’s Store.Early squatters/sharecroppers included the Allen, Carrick, Gann, Harrington, Hunsaker, Ivey, Kendall, Magee, Madson, Merrill, Reed, Southard and Whiting families, to name a few.

Normal development that occurs with multiple-owner communities was denied the Moraga Rancho. Individual landlords would dominate the economic life of the Rancho and would keep Moraga rural.

In the next 50 years small farms and ranches dotted the landscape. A community developed in Moraga where ranchers worked and socialized together. The ranchers were mostly Irish, Yankees, Scandinavian and Northern Germans. They farmed as they wished and paid rent in cash.

The Bosqui family farmed on what is now Campolindo High School, therefore the field is named Bosqui Field; the Carroll family was one of only three ranches sold by Carpentier in 1865 for $1,400 and was 255 acres at the intersection of present- day Moraga Road and Rheem Blvd. The family kept this land until 1983; the Madsen family rented what later became Sanders Ranch and their descendent Rob Davies still resides on Madsen Court; Patrick McCosker squatted and ranched on the ridge above Indian Valley, arriving from Ireland in 1873;The Mulholand family rented land above what is now Rheem Shopping Center and grew barley and hay in 1876; the Trelut family squatted on 225 acres in Bollinger Canyon and later applied and won a homestead patent in 1882 (They were the first family to grow grapes in the area.), Frank Trelut’s grandfather took his crops into Oakland through the Kennedy Tunnel—a two day trip. Frank was a sharecropper on Old Jonas Hill Road, paying Bill Barnes rent; working with the crew that built Rheem Blvd. His wife delivered mail after she took her 4 boys to school, using her own car to deliver to about 50 families, and Jesse Williams was the only farmer to never relinquish his property to Carpentier, owning what ultimately became the Rheem Estate and the Hacienda today.

In 1889 Carpentier sold his land to General James A. Williamson and Angus Archibald Grant, forming theMoraga Land Association. They planned to develop Moraga into town lots and small ranches and construct a rail line from the Orinda Crossroads through Moraga to Lafayette. The project failed! The yellow house on Moraga Way, now owned by James Wright, was to be the workers quarters for the California and Nevada narrow gauge Railroad.

In 1912 the land then sold to Charles Hooper and The Charles A. Hooper Company. He sold parcels of land while renting the remaining property to sharecroppers.Hooper quickly sold all the land to James Irvine who established the Moraga Company. The largest land owner in California, Irvine was not a well-liked man. He turned the rancho into a vast agribusiness.

The change from small time farming to large scale corporate ranching was overwhelming for the farmers and the land.Sharecroppers could no longer use their farms as they wished and rent was not paid in cash. At harvest time payments to Bill Barnes, manager of the rancho, were paid in real crops he had selected from each sharecropper. The sleepy, backward region now became a giant conglomerate headed by one of California’s most powerful entrepreneurs.Sharecroppers were ordered to stop their dairying activities and restrict their efforts to planting and harvesting oats and hay. This action forced the Portuguese dairy men out of the valley.Acre after acre of the rancho was planted in walnuts, pears, peaches, sugar beets, pumpkins, navy beans, tomatoes and corn. Moraga became the largest pear producer in the world. Train loads of pears, walnuts, vegetables were shipped all over the United States from the train station across from the Barn.The operations of the rancho were moved from Burton Valley to the Moraga Ranch (by Safeway) and 100 to 150 workers were employed during harvest time while 12 to 45 workers were needed the rest of the year.Some of the land was marked for real estate activities through the sale of property to developers or subdivisions by the Moraga Company. These were 1-5-acre parcels and 500 acres was set aside for a township to be known as Moraga.

When the Oakland-Antioch Railroad was complete in 1913, Irvine began to implement his first real estate venture. The central portion of the town consisted of 21 blocks which were to form a series of concentric hexagons. Cutting through the development was the Bryant-Moraga Highway-Munster Street, now Country Club Drive- grandly decorated with a series of immense concrete urns down the center. In the middle of the subdivision steps led up to a rose garden atop a mound meant to be a park. The project failed and of the 200 lots, only one lot was sold, and five cottages built. (These cottages were along Munster Street, now Country Club Drive. They were still there in the early 1960’s and were burned down as practice for the Fire Department.) A town center began in 1914—the Moraga Barn, Willow Springs School and train station, and in 1920 a grocery store, Moraga Grocery.

In 1914 a country club and golf course were planned, shares were sold, but World War I and Prohibition forced the failure of this project.A Lafayette subdivision between First and Third Streets was successful.Valle Vista became a reality in 1914 with home sites that sold for $500 each. Twenty of the proposed 57 homes were built. But in 1923 The homes were bought up by the East Bay Water Company to build the San Leandro Reservoir.Hooper had sold land to John Carr for his son Alfred Carr and his son-in-law Frank G. Sanders. Irvine never acquired this land.In 1927 free land was given to St. Mary’s College in hopes this would promote development. It did not!A new Master Plan was developed but the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Depression and World War II put a stop to this elaborate plan.

In 1936, when times were improving, lrvine sold 180 acres to develop Moraga Estates at Orinda’s Crossroads. In 1937 Donald Rheem bought the Williams property then owned by Gertrude Mallett and Alberta Higgins. His big push to develop the area came in 1944 when he purchased 906 acres and later another 530 acres, from the Moraga Company, the same year my father bought 80 acres in Bollinger Valley,

From 1945-1947 Irvine resumed his campaign to sell off lots for development. Most of this development was from Orinda Crossroads toward Moraga along Moraga Way. After WWII, Senator Breed and Bill Barnes pushed to have the United Nations in the Burton Valley Area. However, John D. Rockefeller gave land in New York which was used.

James Irvine died in 1947.

Donald Rheem’s purchase of rancho lands saw the end of the monolithic ownership that had been the situation since Joaquin Moraga and Juan Bernal. There were now two firms operating in the area, each dividing its property among more and more individual owners.

Thus began the creation of a viable community where for almost 130 years only few had lived and worked.


Hacienda De Las Flores

Before Joaquin Moraga’s title to the Rancho Laguna de los Palos Colorados property had been validated, Jesse Hall Williams was a squatter on a quarter section of land on which the Hacienda is now located.  Jesse Williams, his wife Mary Ann Netherton and their five children came to California from Platte County, Missouri in the spring of 1854. The Williamses had five more children after they took up residence on the Rancho property. The County forced Jesse to purchase the 160 acres, “Lot #1” from Jose de Jesus Moraga for $800 in 1857. Williams was the only farmer on the entire Rancho property who never relinquished his property to Horace Carpentier. Albert Daniel Williams inherited the property from his parents, both of whom are buried in the Lafayette cemetery.  Albert sold the 160 acre estate through Antonio Garcia Regello to Manuel Lucas, Regello’s brother-in-law, in 1906.

Manuel Lucas sold 20 acres to Albert Higgins. One of Higgins’ two daughters, Alberta Hortense, inherited the property at his death, and she and her friend, Gertrude E. Mallette, planned to provide a home for orphaned boys. Alberta was a nurse at Stanford University Hospital, and Gertrude was an author of children’s books and a writer for the Oakland Tribune newspaper. Gertrude was largely responsible for the design of the original Hacienda, hiring the San Francisco firm of Bakewell and Veihe to design the Spanish ranch style single story house, built in 1916,—three bedrooms, oak floors, and tile roof with the main entrance off Moraga Road. What is now known as the “Mosaic Room” was the original entrance.  The boys’ orphanage did not survive when state inspectors determined there was no male nurse on the premises.  The two women then turned to raising prize cattle, sheep, Irish setters and various crops.  In the crash of 1929, the women were forced to sell their twenty acres. Alice and Donald Rheem, son of William S. Rheem, president of Standard Oil Company of California, purchased the property. 

Eventually, Alice and Donald Rheem purchased 1,650 acres of Rancho property which Mr. Rheem began to develop in 1937. He first built the Orinda Theater, a bank building and several stores at the Orinda Crossroads. In 1944 he purchased more land from the Moraga Company and the Carroll family.  His first subdivision was in 1948 when he built Rheem Highlands, and in 1954 he built the first major commercial center, originally called Moraga Center, to be established in the Town of Moraga. Rheem’s involvement on the Rancho property spelled the end of the pattern of monolithic ownership that had been the situation since the days of  Moraga and Bernal.

At the Hacienda, the Rheems did extensive remodeling, creating a lavish, ornate estate. Ironwork, arched windows, staircases, and silver and gold leaf were used in the remodeling. A second floor was added on the two wings of the house, and a north wing to the rear, a stable, horse race track, five-car garage, servant’s quarters, Classical pool complex and guest bedrooms were added. Over the years Rheem spent over $750,000 on the showplace.  It was called the “San Simeon of the East Bay”. The master suite, situated a half flight up a round staircase from the second floor, included a bar with tufted leather walls and mahogany cabinets.  The estate occupied a total of 32 acres. Timbers from the original house are still in today’s Fireside Room.

     A 1937 photo of the Hacienda shows a thoroughbred exercise area and horse race track.  Trees from the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco were used in some of the landscaping. A track and stables, a three room chauffeur’s residence, maid and butler’s quarters, a theater, dark room and caretaker’s quarters were added in 1943.  Mr. Rheem had the creek dammed to get sufficient water to fill the pool and to supply water to the house and lavish gardens.  He also stored water in 55 gallon tanks from the many springs behind the estate (now known as the Mulholland Open Space Preserve).  The dam was torn down when the County insisted that the creek should flow its natural course.

In 1938 a pool and cabana were built at the Hacienda, designed by Clarence Tantau, who designed the California Building for the World’s Fair on Treasure Island. Now called the Pavilion, this structure included five dressing rooms, two bedrooms, two baths, a bar, a salon, a reception room and an upstairs projection room. A fireplace dominated the reception room, and the projection room had a ceiling covered with silver leaf. Movies were projected through disguised holes in the upper west wall and beamed to a screen above the double doors leading to the bar.  This area once housed a 27’ by 78’ Grecian pool.  The Rheems gave lavish parties at this site. The pool was used by pre-flight cadets who trained at St. Mary’s College during World War II. The Pavilion was dedicated to the Town of Moraga on January 6, 1979.   

     Donald Rheem and his brother Richard, formed the Rheem California Land Company in 1961, and they continued to buy land and develop in Moraga. The Rheem brothers created sixteen tracts and sold off several raw, undeveloped plots in the Rheem area from 1962-1973. However, the Rheems left the Moraga Rancho scene with the sale of the Rheem Center to the Dohemann Development Company in 1973. The Hacienda and almost ten acres of the original 36-acre estate were sold to the Christian Brothers of St. Mary’s College for $225,000.  The house was converted into office and multi-use areas, named the “De La Salle Institute” and used by the Brothers as their western headquarters. From 1961-1978, the Brothers occupied the estate, but between 1972 and 1978, they used only the north wing and the LaSala building.

The order was criticized for the luxury of their headquarters, and Brother Bertram Coleman, Provincial at the time, decided it was not in keeping for the Brothers, who professed a vow of poverty, to maintain such lavish quarters.  The estate was sold to the Moraga Parks and Recreation Authority for $343,750 in 1973.  On the recommendation of a Parks and Recreation Study Committee formed by the Town in 1976, the Town Council dissolved the authority and replaced it with a Parks and Recreation Commission. A contest was conducted to choose a name for the facility; Jeanne Kirsch won with the name “Hacienda de las Flores”. By August 3, 1980, the main house was completely refurbished. In September of 1986, Mayor Margaret DePriester presided at the symbolic “mortgage burning” ceremony. Today the Hacienda serves as an East Bay premier wedding/event venue and Moraga’s community center.

Revised by Susan Sperry, Moraga Historical Society