Did you know the town of Moraga traces its name to a Mexican soldier who never rose above the rank of private? Joaquin Moraga and his cousin Juan Bernal were granted a 13,000-acre tract of land in 1841 that's now home to Moraga, Orinda and Lafayette -- Rancho de los Palos Colorado -- as payment for their military service to Mexico, which had more land than money.

Did you know the Moraga redwoods, on the eastern slope of the Oakland hills, once grew to such towering heights that they were visible from ships sailing along the California coast? The trees were harvested in the 1850s and used for construction in San Francisco and Sacramento.

Did you know that many of Moraga's earliest residents were squatters who migrated west after the California Gold Rush played out? They became ranchers and farmers, staking claims through the heart of the Moraga Valley.

Few people know more about the history of what she calls the "hidden gem" of Contra Costa County than Susan Sperry, former schoolteacher and current president of the Moraga Historical Society. Her roots run deep.

"My father bought this property we're on -- the original 80 acres -- in March 1944, and I was born that June," she said, noting that the price was $125 an acre and he needed a loan to come up with the down payment.


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She grew up just a few miles from Saint Mary's College, and fondly remembers watching the community come of age. It was mainly fields and orchards at first, and mail had to be picked up at the train station. Students who wanted to attend high school traveled by train to Concord. Shoppers went to Lafayette or Walnut Creek, at least until Donald Rheem opened a shopping center in 1954.

"When my mother's friends from Alameda would come out for a visit, they'd say, 'Oh, why do you want to live way out here?'" Sperry said. "Now, when people come out here, they say, 'Is there any property for sale -- we'd like to live here.'"

It's little wonder that Sperry came to treasure each morsel she uncovered about the region's history. Among her undertakings was a collection of oral histories from descendants of the earliest-arriving families.

She learned that when Ernest Trelut and his brothers, who came to Moraga in 1880, took their crops to market in Oakland, the round trip by wagon took three days. She learned that when wheat was farmed in Moraga, crews from different farms all pitched in, sharing one thresher among them.

That small-town spirit -- neighbor looking out for neighbor -- has always been a part of Moraga, she said, recalling examples from when her adult daughters were teenagers.

"After Serina got a car, one of her teachers called me and said, 'I saw Serina today, and she was driving too fast.' Another time, the orthodontist called me and said, 'I saw Cristina hanging out with the wrong group of kids.'"

One of the few drawbacks of growth -- the population now exceeds 16,000 -- has been a small uptick in crime. "At one time," Sperry said, "we had one of the safest communities in the state. We never locked our doors. We left the keys in our cars. We don't do that anymore."

That hasn't lessened her love of Moraga or its colorful history. And next week she'll do what she does so well. She'll speak to about 200 third-graders during an annual event at the Moraga History Center, where young minds will learn the story of their town from the person who knows it best.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.