Excerpted from MHS Newsletter 2020 Q1
Donald Laird Rheem: “Father of Moraga”
Donald Laird Rheem was born in Alameda in 1901. His father, William S. Rheem, was sent to California by John D. Rockefeller to start Standard Oil of California in Richmond. William Rheem was listed as 1st Vice President of Standard Oil, and he later became President of Standard Oil.
Donald attended Grant School in Oakland and University High School. 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 brother Richard Scofield Rheem opened Pacific Galvanizing in Richmond. 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 build the original Hacienda as an orphanage. Because no male was on site, the County denied their permit to operate an orphanage, and they reverted to ranching. Alice persuaded Donald to buy the peaceful and remote acreage for a summer home. Donald bought a tractor and started remodeling/tearing down out buildings around the original house.
In 1937 Donald bought 12 more acres from Mrs. Lightner across Moraga Road because Alice did not like a pig farm so near her house, and 1,800 more acres 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 racetrack. Donald 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 to make the Hacienda her permanent home, leaving Piedmont.
In 1941 Donald bought 14 acres at the Orinda Crossroads and built the Orinda Theater. The Breed family, however, owned most of the surrounding land, and 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 had become 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 personally 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 drive Mr. Andreason, he laid the pad for the Rheem Shopping Center and then had Frank Draeger draw the plans. “Events proved that a good shopping center built better than any other will bring the people to it.” Donald changed the name of Irvine Drive to Rheem Blvd. and developed Center Street to 80’ wide, with 18’ sidewalks.
By October 1954, 20,000 sq. foot Clark’s Market opened, the first completely air-conditioned market in Contra Costa.
Sadly, Alice died in 1955!
June 12, 1957 saw the opening of the Rheem Theater with 1,000 loge seats, at a cost of $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.
The lands surrounding the Hacienda began being 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 4 residential areas, 380 homes and 1,500 potential homesites. The Hacienda was sold to the Christian Brothers.
In the 1960’s, the Rheem brothers lost control of Rheem Manufacturing through an unfriendly take-over.
Brother William Harold Rheem died in 1965.
In 1972 the Hacienda was sold to the Town of Moraga. The Rheems left the Rancho scene with the sale of the Rheem Center to the Dohemann Development Company in 1973.
Donald Rheem suffered a stroke on December 13, 1982 and died January 17, 1983.