Moraga History – People: Donald Laird Rheem, “father” of the Rheem Valley

Donald Laird Rheem was born in Alameda in 1901. The same year, his father, William S. Rheem, had been sent to California by John D. Rockefeller to manage the Richmond, California, refinery which had recently evolved from Pacific Coast Oil Company into Standard Oil Company of California. In 1914, William Rheem was first Vice President of Standard Oil, and in 1917 he became the President of Standard Oil.

Donald Rheem attended Grant School in Oakland and University High School in San Francisco. His father died in 1919 when Donald was 18 years old; consequently, he did not go to college but went to work for Standard Oil for one year. Donald and his brother Richard Scofield Rheem opened Pacific Galvanizing in Richmond. Innovative entrepreneurs, by 1930 the brothers had incorporated the Rheem Manufacturing Company.

In 1934 Donald and his wife, Alice, were living in Piedmont, California. By 1935 they had acquired 16 acres in Moraga from Alberta Higgins and Gertrude Malette, two women who built the original Hacienda structure as an orphanage. Because no male was on the building site, which was a requirement, Contra Costa County denied their permit to operate an orphanage, and they reverted to ranching. After purchasing the building, Alice persuaded Donald to buy the peaceful and remote acreage for a summer home. Donald bought a tractor and started remodeling and tearing down buildings around the original house. In 1937 Donald bought 12 more acres from Mrs. Lightner across Moraga Road because Alice wanted the pig farm further from her house, and then bought an additional 1,800 from Irvine’s Moraga Company. His brother Richard bought 200 more acres in this area. This was to become Donald’s “San Simeon of Northern California,” and in 1938 construction of the pool and cabana began. Because of Alice’s love for horses, the property also contained stables and a race track. He transformed the three-bedroom home into a lavish, ornate two-story estate. Roads on the property were built by Al McCosker, an Orinda resident and paving contractor. By 1940 Alice liked Moraga so much she decided the couple would make this town their permanent home, leaving Piedmont.
In 1941 Donald bought 14 acres at the Orinda Crossroads and built the Orinda Theater. As the Breed family owned most of the surrounding land, Donald could not develop further than the theater and Wells Fargo bank.

As World War II loomed in 1942, Donald gave the U.S. Navy permission to use the Hacienda pool for training, as the pool at St. Mary’s College had not yet been constructed. By 1944 the Rheem brothers became shipbuilders.

Around 1948 Rheem Blvd (then called Irvine Drive), once a mere dirt trail, was privately graded and built by Donald. St. Mary’s College gave him frontage to widen and pave St. Mary’s Road. Donald built 10 miles of roads in Rheem and Moraga. Donald built homes at Rheem Highlands, Rheem Glen and Rheem View Acres between 1949-1952. In 1953 Donald began grading for his shopping center. With the help of tractor driver Mr. Andreason, he laid the building pad for the Rheem Shopping Center and then had Frank Draeger draw the plans. Donald changed the name of Irvine Drive to Rheem Boulevard and developed Center Street to 80 feet wide, with 18-feet sidewalks. By October 1954, 20,000 square foot Clark’s Market opened, the first completely air-conditioned market in Contra Costa. Alice Rheem died on 11 May 1956.

June 12, 1957 saw the opening of the Rheem Theater with 1,000 loge seats, which had cost $750,000 to build. Donald wanted to make the Rheem Theater the finest in Northern California.

Donald Rheem Elementary School was built in 1959 on land given to the Moraga School District, thanks to the persuasiveness of Superintendent Charlie Toll.

Around the Hacienda, lands began to be broken up into developments. In 1961 the Shopping Center contained a bakery, restaurant, barber shop, furniture store, general offices, bowling alley, hardware store, sporting goods store, music shop, plant nursery, real estate offices, service station, dime store, and women’s wear store. There were four residential areas, 380 homes and 1,500 potential homesites. The Hacienda was sold to the Christian Brothers for their residential and administrative use.

In the 1960’s, the Rheem brothers lost control of Rheem Manufacturing through an unfriendly take-over. Donald’s brother William Kenneth Rheem died in 1965.In 1972 the Hacienda was sold to the Town of Moraga. The Rheems left the location of the former Moraga Rancho with the sale of the Rheem Center to the Dohemann Development Company in 1973. Donald Rheem suffered a stroke on 13 December 1982 and died soon after, on 17 January 1983.