Excerpted from MHS Newsletter 2022 Q1
Moraga Valley Store (Susan Sperry)
The social center of the Moraga Valley in the 1850’s was the Moraga Valley Store. It supplied everything from food to nails, clothing to saddles. The backroom saloon was popular with the lumberjacks and teamsters who milled Moraga’s redwoods in Canyon and the newly arrived squatter farmers and two rancho families. Traffic from the redwoods and store patronage increased after Elam Brown purchased the Canyon redwoods from Joaquin Moraga in 1853, and ox-drawn wagons began hauling lumber from the steam mill to the port in Martinez.
The Moraga Valley Store, said to be the second frame building in Moraga, was owned and operated by 20-year-old New Yorker John P. Courter and was opened in the spring of 1854. Courter bought six acres from Joaquin Moraga recognizing the economic possibilities of such an establishment. Located on the road that led from the redwoods to the shipping port in Martinez, it was on the site of the present-day parking lot of St. Monica Church. Business was brisk. Lumberjacks sought supplies, relaxation and feed/water for their oxen. As the squatter families grew so too grew the need for a handy mercantile outlet. The store served as an official County bulletin board.
The structure was two-storied including rooms above the first-floor mercantile space. The two sets of framed double doors suggest entrances to separate areas within-mercantile and saloon. Upstairs rooms may have been used for guest accommodations. The family occupied a farmhouse to the rear of the store. John lived there with the John I. Van Duyne family, a fellow New Yorker who was married to Joaquin Moraga’s eldest granddaughter, Benedita. Courter operated the store for nearly three years, even then admitting several others into partnership.
The store was a rather wild place! Joseph Lamson, Justice of the Peace, quotes, “. . . a foray occurred at Courter and Johnson’s Store in which a worthless fellow, Gann, stabbed another young fellow, equally worthless, three times, inflicting some pretty severe but not fatal wounds. Gann fled and nobody cared to pursue him.” Elsie Mastick tells of gun fights and a hanging in a nearby tree for horse stealing.
Because money was scarce with both Mexicans and squatters, grocery bills were often paid off with deeds of property. Consequently, Courter and his successor, Louis Maison, acquired title to a number of ranchos in the area.
After Maison’s sudden death in 1861, the Moraga Valley Store was managed by Ferdinand Wilke for Maison’s widow, Leonita. She later sold the store to a man named Lawrence who sold it to Phineas Harrington, one of the rancho’s original squatters. Lemuel G. Peel was the owner of the landmark structure when it closed in 1872, after which it was used as a residence by several families and ultimately used as a hay barn.