Excerpted from MHS Newsletter 2023 Q4
Crop Farming in the Moraga Valley (John Kaiser)
Moraga will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary as a town in 2024, but it could easily have been the hundredth anniversary if the Moraga Company’s vision for a central town site had become reality. During the second half of the 1800s the original owners of the Rancho Laguna de los Palos Colorados land grant, Joaquin Moraga and Juan Bernal, gradually lost control of their dominant land position as they subsidized their ranching life style by sub-dividing their land and mortgaging the parcels. Horace Carpentier, a New Yorker who became a founder of Oakland, recognized the potential of the Moraga Valley as a transportation corridor between Oakland and Sacramento, and spent decades acquiring title to the pieces of the increasingly fragmented land grant.
In 1889 Carpentier sold his land to a pair of railway speculators, 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 construct a rail line from the Orinda Crossroads through Moraga to Lafayette. The plan went nowhere and Carpentier foreclosed on the purchase loan in 1899. Carpentier arranged a right of way for the Oakland & Antioch Railway in 1911 which drove the Shepherd Canyon Tunnel through the East Bay Hills and laid track along Pinehurst Road, St Mary’s Road and what today is known as the Lafayette-Moraga Regional Trail. This electric train provided passenger service until 1947 and freight service until 1953. In 1912 Carpentier sold the land to Charles Hooper who not long after sold to an Orange County businessman called James Irvine who established the Moraga Company to develop Moraga.
The Moraga Company launched an ambitious plan for a town site in 1913 which was partly developed; most of the buildings still stand today. The Moraga Old Town Site Walking Tour created in 2022 by MHS members John Kaiser and Susan Skilton is a 45 minute walk that includes 8 historic stations. The online version of the tour displays very well on smart phones, with each stop represented by a dedicated web page.
Irvine’s vision of the Old Moraga Town Site seeding a growing community whose land he could develop and sell to new residents did not flourish for a variety of reasons, including inadequate water supply and the economic uncertainty created by World War 1. During the 1920s the Moraga Company run by civil engineer Frank Draeger and “Emperor” Bill Barnes gave up on developing a residential community and instead turned the Moraga Valley into a vast agribusiness with an emphasis on crops like pears and walnuts. This was a departure from the ranching focus of the 19th century, which retreated to Moraga’s abundant hillsides. What could have been the beginning of a town called Moraga in 1924 instead became a farming community operated by sharecroppers, families which did not own land but which ran their own agricultural businesses and delivered a certain percentage if their harvest to the Moraga Company. A new attempt in 1936 at residential development fell apart with the arrival of World War II.
Irvine died in 1947 and in 1953 Utah Construction purchased the Moraga Company. Its plan involved installing basic utilities such as power, water, sewage and roads starting in Orinda and moving eastwards. It created housing sub-divisions with a design template which it allowed independent contractors to develop according to specifications. Thus began the transition of Moraga from an agribusiness to a bedroom community. In 1966 Utah Construction sold its remaining land holdings to Russell Bruzzone. In 1986 MHS published an excellent account by Frank Draeger titled “Developing The Moraga Company Ranch 1922-1977”, a scanned copy of which is now available online at our web site.
Irvine Brings Pears to Moraga (Susan Sperry with information by Vera Kochan)
With the purchase of the Rancho Laguna de Los Palos Colorados, James Irvine changed Moraga from a sleepy, backward region of little farms to a giant conglomerate headed by one of California’s most powerful entrepreneurs, overwhelming the farmers and the land itself.
Sharecroppers could no longer use their farms as they previously had, 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. Mary Freitas farmed land that is now St. Mary’s Gardens. She paid 1/3 the value of her hay and grain crops for her farmland. However, there were 20 conditions spelled out in her contract with the Moraga Company—sack or bale her crops for delivery; exterminate all rodents, gophers, and squirrels; control noxious weeds; pay $2 for each pig that escaped its pen, among many others. Furthermore, she was not allowed to injure or destroy any tree on the property and no hunting was allowed. These early-day residents became little more than serfs.
Prior to the purchase of the Moraga Rancho, James Irvine held 110,000 acres of prime agricultural land raising grains, vegetables, citrus and more in Southern California. With this knowledge, Irvine planned to turn this hands-on operation of 11,000 acres of Moraga land into a similar enterprise. What he created was the largest pear production operation under one management in the world between 1914 and 1944! Thirty-eight acres were planted with Bartlett pears, apples, apricots and plums in the Moraga Valley, Burton Valley, and Lafayette. One hundred acres were planted in walnuts. Other crops were planted between the orchard trees-sugar beets, pumpkins, navy beans, corn, and tomatoes.
The Ranch operations were moved from Burton Valley to the Moraga Company Ranch (across from present day Safeway), and 100-150 workers were employed during harvest time, while 12 to 45 workers were needed to operate the company the rest of the year. Workers were housed in the Ranch complex in bunkhouses. Train loads of pears, walnuts, vegetables were shipped all over the United States from the train station across from the BARN.
When Utah Mining and Construction bought 500 acres of pear orchards in 1953, only 150 acres of pear trees remained. By 1974, pear harvests were discontinued; the Bartlett pear trees in Moraga now speak of harvests gone by that brought prosperity to the valley. Once, the nucleus of the Town, the orchards are being replaced by subdivisions and shopping centers. Faithfully continuing to produce the succulent fruit, the last of the Town’s 38 pear orchards still grace fields and homes in Moraga. The annual Pear and Wine Festival each September is a way to honor a unique part of Moraga’s story—pears!