Inside Story Of The ECC Historical Society01 June 2017 Written by By Doreen Forlow
Published in June 2017 Articles
For the past decade, I’ve been on the board of the East Contra Costa Historical Society and Museum.
We are collecting and preserving objects of historical interest and making them accessible for purposes of research and self-improvement. Our mission is to bring people interested in local history into contact with each other and with objects and documents that illustrate that history. Our ultimate purpose is to foster an appreciation of our heritage and, in particular, of the important role that our forebearers played in creating and supporting our democratic way of life.
Our Byer/Nail House Museum is on 1.3 acres of land on Sellers Road just south of Sunset. The agricultural setting of the property, with its surrounding farmland, is ideal. An 1878 farmhouse is the central piece of the museum. Each room is filled with furnishings, furniture, accessories, and decorations appropriate to the building’s historical timeframe. Photographs on the walls depict scenes from throughout East County.
Surrounding the building are historical relics illustrating the area’s agricultural heritage including a number of antique tractors, plows, and other farm equipment. A tool shed houses a variety of farming equipment, hand tools, and pictures of bygone farmers and farm practices such as a horse-drawn threshing machine. The shed is also home to antique communication equipment including radios, telephones, and telegraph keys. A pole barn contains a Studebaker Wagonnette used to transport guests from the railroad station to the Byron Hot Springs. The fully restored Byron Fire Engine is featured in numerous local parades.
We recently completed restoration of East County’s sole surviving one-room schoolhouse. The Eden Plains Schoolhouse was originally constructed in 1868 and served students for 38 years. The building was donated in 2003 and has finally been fully restored to its original condition with era-appropriate school desks and a school bell that originally called students to class at the Iron House School. Each year more than 1,400 third graders participate in a local history unit. We provide a lesson plan packet for teachers to share with the students, who then spend a full day at the museum, pumping water from a well, washing clothes on a wash board, and having a lesson in the school house where they write with a quill pen.
Last April the society realized a significant goal when we dedicated the spacious Kathy Leighton Resource Center. The center represents a significant leap-forward because we were finally able to move documents, photographs, books, maps, binders, genealogical histories, newspapers and other memorabilia from their cramped quarters in an old mobile home where for decades they had resided unlabeled and unsorted. Some of the boxes were stacked 3-deep right to the ceiling.
For years we’ve been assisting our resource manager Kathy Leighton’s attempts to cope with the embarrassment of riches represented by the materials stacked and piled around her in that trailer. Various artifacts contain the histories of Bethel Island, Brentwood, Byron, Discovery Bay, Knightsen and Oakley. In particular, we have at least 20,000 old photographs. Now at last they are in a place where the boxes are accessible and their contents can be sorted and catalogued.
The task is a daunting one, but Mary Black and I did some research and were able to purchase the PastPerfect software program that is used by more than 10,000 museums to categorize, organize, and cross reference large collections. The program has list management, research, and report features that will eventually provide any person interested in some particular event, location, or person in our history with full access to our data.
Kathy Leighton has the pack-rat mentality that is essential to creating access to the detailed history of a place that goes deeper than simply putting on display old toasters and plows from Grandma and Grandpa’s past.
I gained a renewed appreciation for Kathy’s spirit when we were moving items from the trailer to the resource center. I discovered that Kathy will never throw anything away except for used cardboard boxes. From Kathy’s perspective all those jumbled piles and boxes of pictures and documents were like parts of a giant puzzle with pieces numbering into the tens-of-thousands. For example, I once found a piece of paper that had been wrinkled up then flattened out. I threw the thing at the garbage but Kathy caught it in mid-air. “We’re not throwing that out,” she said. Later it turned out that the information on that paper provided connection between two other things that would otherwise have remained disconnected. I’ve caught Kathy’s spirit; we don’t throw anything away.
The fact is that some of the items in the Byer/Nail House, which younger people regard as curious relics from a bygone day, are things we used on a daily basis when I was young. Sometimes I feel that I am on the verge of becoming something of a historical artifact myself. I was born and raised right here in Brentwood and graduated in the Liberty High Class of ’65. I went on to receive a Master’s degree in Special Ed from St. Mary’s in Moraga. I was a Special Ed teacher and spent three decades working for the Liberty High School District, teaching at Liberty High, La Paloma, and Freedom — plus seven years at Los Medanos.
In 1990 I took a year sabbatical to offer my Special Ed skills to young Native Americans living on Ramah Navajo Reservation in northern New Mexico. I became caught up in Vocational Ed activities assisting young people with disabilities to get a job. The work was so compelling that I asked for my sabbatical to be extended for another year.
However, New Mexico really is a land of enchantment with a culture very different than ours. The Navajo Community has an insular quality and rebuffs attempts of outsiders to gain easy access to the inner workings of the society. It commonly takes two years, or so, before fully accepting a person into their community. Most teachers get frustrated and depart before that happens. So at the end of my two-year sabbatical, now that I had finally become a fully-accepted member of the community, I was unwilling to leave, so resigned my position in Brentwood and spent the next eight years as a participant in the unique and fascinating Navajo sub-culture. In some ways, I had moved the clock back a few centuries and was experiencing patterns of behavior and thought that had been around since before Columbus landed, imagining he had “found” a land that, in fact, the local inhabitants had never lost.
After ten years among those dear people, I reluctantly returned to Brentwood because my mom, Rose Pierce, was beginning to show signs of aging. I applied for a job with the Liberty High School District and was able to pick up right where I had left off a decade earlier.
As everyone from that period of time in Brentwood knows, my mom was a community icon. Rose taught her two daughters, Lil and me, by example the importance of respecting our farmers, doing business locally, and serving the community in every way possible. Among her innumerable passions and accomplishments, Rose wanted her beloved Community Chest and her work with the museum to continue after she was gone. So following her passing, my sister Lil took over the Community Chest and I took over Mom’s role in the museum. You could hardly find two more different people than Lil and me. However, our parents raised us well. In spite of our differences we are close; we will finish each other’s sentences and generously overlook each other’s weirdness.
Mom had served as president of the museum and was a powerful force in fundraising. She was a member of the board when she passed. With very little previous exposure to the museum, I showed up at a board meeting and they graciously accepted my announcement that I was there to replace Rose.
I brought to the board my experience of having been raised in the area and my passion for the agricultural community. I’ve always eaten locally grown produce when in season. If it isn’t grown in Brentwood, I’m not going to eat it. I also brought my passion and experience for photography. While in high school I hung around with the school photographer, learning how to compose shots and develop pictures in a darkroom. It became an avocation and I sold photographs to New Mexico magazines and to the Brentwood Welcome Magazine. I also did the photographs for 16 farm banners that are on permanent display in Treva Black’s and David Roche’s Apex Security office. I also created a 30-minute “Memories of a One-Room School” video featuring interviews with ten residents who attended one-room schools in the area.
I know I’m going to have some wonderful moments of discovery while working with Kathy on cataloguing the pictures we have in those stacks of boxes. If we would do 100 of them a week, we could have the job finished in less than four years.
“A people without knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots,” someone said. It’s been a wonderful task for all of us on the board of the East Contra Costa Historical Society and Museum to dig into our roots and to uncover and examine historical artifacts exposing the lives and culture of those who have gone before us.
We are open weekends. The resource room is open on Monday evenings. Each year we sponsor two community dinners with featured speakers at the San Joaquin Yacht Club on St. Patrick’s Day and Thanksgiving. We also sponsor an Opening Day Event in April, which is for the entire family. We make homemade ice cream from milk taken from a wooden cow with working udders. We do gold panning and play hoop games. Fun for the whole family!
The Nail Museum is the only one of the more than a dozen museums in our county that hasn’t received a penny support from taxes. We receive all our support through contributions. Our main fundraising event is an annual September barbeque.
We’ve got more on our plate than we can possibly handle with our current crew of dedicated volunteers. This really is a community effort. We do everything ourselves. And we’re proud of it! If you have time, energy, and passion, check out our website below. Come join us in this wonderfully satisfying way of preserving our history for our youngsters and for generations to come.