Excerpted from MHS Newsletter 2022 Q3
The Last of the Land Barons (edited by Susan Sperry)
In 1889 Horace Carpentier sold his land to General James A. Williamson and Angus Archibald Grant, who formed the Moraga Land Association. They planned to develop Moraga into town lots and small ranches and extend the California and Nevada Railroad from the Orinda Crossroads through Moraga to Lafayette. The project failed! The yellow house on Moraga Way was to be the workers’ quarters for the Railroad.
In 1912 the land sold to Charles Hooper and The Charles A. Hooper Company. He sold parcels of land while renting the remaining property to sharecroppers. He quickly sold most the land to James Irvine who established the Moraga Company. The largest landowner 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 desired, 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 part of 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 Bartlett pear producer in the United States. 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, 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 by the Moraga Company. These were 1-to-5-acre parcels, and 500 acres was set aside for a town to be known as MORAGA. When the Oakland-Antioch Railroad was completed 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 concentrical 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. A town center began in 1914, the Moraga Barn, Willow Spring 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 Irvine donated land to St. Mary’s College in hopes this would promote development. It did not! A new Master Plan was created but the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Depression 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 property then owned by Gertrude Mallett and Alberta Higgins. His big push to develop the area came in 1944 when he purchased an additional 906 acres and later another 530 acres from the Moraga Company. From 1945-1947 Irvine resumed his campaign to sell off lots for development. The 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.
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 was now the Moraga Company and Rheem operating in the area, each dividing property among more individual owners.
Thus began the creation of a viable community where for almost 130 years only few had lived and worked.