Excerpted from MHS Newsletter 2023 Q3

Ranching in the Moraga Valley(Susan Sperry)

Rancho is a Spanish word which meant, in the Spanish colonial period in the Americas, a place for raising cattle and other livestock. Most ranchos in California originated as land that the Mexican government awarded to people after the breakup of the mission system, or secularization. This is the time between the 1830’s and the 1850’s in which the Mexican government distributed lands that had been under the control of the missions to private individuals through a process of land grants from the territorial government in Alta California. The buying and selling of products made from cattle raised on these ranchos was to be known as “rancho economy”. Along with the meat, cattle provided hides that could be converted into many products such as saddles/ropes, and tallow for making things such as soap and candles. The hide and tallow trade became the foundation of the rancho economy. Joaquin Moraga and Juan Bernal were rancheros, soldiers who came to the area and proved they could be capable of farming the land in a productive way.

In 1835 Joaquin Moraga and his cousin Juan Bernal were granted 13,316 acres of land known as Rancho Laguna de los Palos Colorados on which they raised approximately 1000 head of cattle and 600 horses. They traded the hides from their rancho with Yankee trading ships, which came into the San Francisco Bay, for industrial products from New England. Thus began the cattle industry in the Moraga Valley.

Disappointed gold seekers migrated to the Moraga Valley after 1849 and began squatting on the Moraga rancho. With the influx of these squatters and others who were able to obtain land before California land title was secured by Moraga/Bernal, life on the rancho changed dramatically. The Moraga family went into deep debt trying to save their land. As a result of this long saga, fourteen ranches, ranging from 63 to 175 acres, were surveyed and sold to pay these debts. These ranches went to recognizable families: Jesse Williams (Hacienda), John Merrill (Rheem Blvd./St. Mary’s Road), David and George Meacham (St. Mary’s Orchards), James Magee (downtown Moraga), William Southard (Canyon Road and Country Club), John Allen (Indian Valley), Nicholas Hunsaker (Burton Valley), Michael Carroll (Rheem), Edward Bosqui (Campolindo High School), Eric Madsen (across from JM), Patrick McCosker (Indian Valley), John Mulholand (Rheem Blvd), Trelut family (Bollinger Canyon) to name a few.

By 1885 Horace Carpentier owned the remaining land. The first sale of this land by Carpentier ended in foreclosure and on July 19, 1912, Charles Hooper purchased the remaining rancho land for one million dollars. By September 6, 1912, he sold James Irvine the land for $150 an acre for a total of $999,909.

Most of the ranches in the early 1900’s started as dairy farms/sharecroppers. Manuel Frietas came with his father in 1913 as sharecroppers and started a dairy business behind present day St. Mary’s College. Milk was put in 50-gallon containers and shipped to Oakland by rail every other day except daily in the summer. The Depression forced the price of milk down and the dairy business was forced to change the operations to beef cattle. Many dairy farmers moved to the central valley when Irvine began his agribusiness in the valley because he wanted grains/crops grown on the land rather than cattle grazing. Sharecroppers were required under Irvine’s ownership to pay their rent with actual crops. Manager Bill Barnes came to each ranch/farm and chose the products he wanted as rent payment.

Cousins John Sanders and A.J. Carr came to the Moraga Valley from East Oakland to start ranching at the end of Camino Pablo. They purchased approximately 400 acres from Charles Hooper and over the years succeeding generations added land up to Rocky Ridge. Sanders ran about 300 head, and Carr about 150 head. In the spring calves were rounded up, branded, dehorned, and given shots against diseases. The ranchers ran mostly Herefords with a few Angus. Up until the early 1920’s cattle were driven to the East Bay markets and Emeryville from Moraga to Orinda via Moraga Way and either taken through the Kennedy Tunnel or up Fish Ranch Road. They were then driven down Ashby Avenue to the slaughterhouse. This trip took its toll on weight loss and lost animals. When trucks became more reliable,the beeves were taken by truck to markets. Then, it became cheaper to ship by rail and a corral was built behind the train station, across from the BARN, conveniently near the railroad. Calves are soldat 500 pounds. During the Depression, the price fell to two cents per pound. This forced many ranchers out of business. (Today’s market price is $1.50 per pound). Sanders and Carr divided their ranch, and the Sanders family sold to subdividers. The Carr family continues to ranch this land, but the property is now protected by the John Muir Land Trust as open space.

My father, Gordon Frazell, purchased 80 acres in April 1944 and established a ranch on Valley Hill Drive, off Bollinger Canyon. Over the years he leased other lands from neighbors amounting to approximately 400 acres. As a young girl I remember riding the hills with my father from Moraga to Danville, often meeting John Sanders and his team checking their herd. Years later, my daughters and their husbands joined us on the Saturday herd checking, fence mending, branding, castrating and trucking calves to market. Today we only ranch 60 acres and use an ATV to check fences and our small herd of black Angus “grass managers”.

Grass lands in Moraga are mainly leased by several individuals on either privately owned land, open space or park lands.

A convergence of factors has reduced ranching in Moraga. The increased desirability of housing in our valley led to the swell of subdivisions beginning in the 1960’s. Before Proposition 13, the limited profits from ranching make it difficult to pay the overwhelming property taxes. As eating habits changed, the demand for beef has decreased. Land became more valuable and long-time families began to sell out to developers. Generations of family ranchers have dwindled as interest in working the land is less desirable and profitable to the younger generation.