The early days of the Moraga Historical Society

By Susan Sperry – Excerpt from Newsletter 2024 Q3

MHS History Center and Brother Dennis Goodman

The Moraga Historical Society can trace its roots to the early 1950s when Brother Dennis Goodman (see photo), St. Mary’s College librarian, began accumulating documents and books pertaining to the history of the Moraga family and the Rancho Laguna de los Palos Colorados. In 1965 a newcomer to Moraga, Sonia Levitin, asked Postmistress Eleanor Dickenson about joining a historical group in town. The reply was, “Dear, you’ll have to found it first!” That was the beginning. With the help of Bill Macaskill, Brother Matthew McDevitt of the St. Mary’s history department and Brother Dennis, a public meeting was arranged to be held in De La Salle Lounge on campus. About 275 residents crammed into the Lounge to hear Brother Matthew; Eugene Moraga (fifth generation Moraga and the last child to be born in the Adobe), and a Contra Costa County cartographer describe the early days of Moraga. At the conclusion of the meeting residents paid $5 to become charter members!

This first general meeting was a success, so it was agreed to set up a founding board of twelve people to launch the Society. Some of the original members were Brother Dennis, Brother Matthew, Bill Macaskill, Dorothy Mutnick, Sonia Levitin, and Don Manuel. It was October 12, 1965. The first Board meetings were held in the president’s home or the fire station. The Society had very little money because of the small membership so programs were held in local elementary schools.

Brother Dennis felt there should be a history of Moraga published and he turned to Sandy Kimball to create Moraga’s Pride. With help from Brother Dennis’ extensive card file of research about Moraga history, and Mrs. Mutnick’s thorough work mainly about Lafayette, Ms. Kimball began writing. Records from Mission Dolores, Mission San Jose and other parishes became great resources. Ms. Kimball was paid for her work with the purchase of a computer! Maggie Skinner, “keeper of the archives”, did the proofreading and picture captioning. Les Krames designed the artwork. A company in Berkeley made the master copy and the printing was done in Michigan. The resulting 2000 copies of the 1987 first edition sold well. The $17,000 borrowed was repaid by the sale of the books.

Today the Moraga Historical Society is housed in an 800 sq foot archive wing on the west side of the Moraga Library in a structure added in 1999, entirely funded by the public through donations and membership fees.

The second edition of Moraga’s Pride was updated and published in 2002. Our membership is currently about 100 individuals and rising. Renewing and new members ($30 per household $20 per individual) are entitled to pick up a free copy of Moraga’s Pride at the History Center (Thursdays 1-3 pm) or at our booth at the July 4 and Pear Festival celebrations at the Moraga Commons. Also, check out our web site where we now have online catalogs of our archives which allow you to plan your research visit when the History Center is open.

Our Digitization Plan is Live!

Volunteers over the past six decades have painstakingly collected and archived a wide range of photos, documents, maps, recordings and artifacts related to the Rancho Laguna de los Palos Colorados land grant which covers a good part of Lamorinda. We now have catalogs on our web site listing our physical archives which visitors can access before they visit our History Center so they can plan their research strategy. Many of these items are unique, such as photo prints donated by people over the decades, as well as newspaper clippings curated by MHS volunteers which are not available online.

Climate change, however, has boosted the risk that one day the Moraga Library complex which includes our History Center will go up in smoke. All the books in the library can be replaced, but much of our archives documenting the history of Moraga and the surrounding area is irreplaceable. Last year we embarked on a plan to digitize our archives. This is not a new idea. While searching the late Bill Lund’s computer for digital versions of MHS newsletters he edited we discovered an ambitious plan in 2000 to digitize the archives on the now archaic dbase platform. We do not know why it failed, but today there remain no excuses for not getting it done.

We have developed a database system and used the Valle Vista subdivision to prototype our digitization strategy which you can review at our Valle Vista Subdivision web page. We are now looking for volunteers who want to get involved. Contact John Kaiser at info@moragahistory.org for more information.