OAKLEY -- Ensconced in a slightly worn-looking mobile home on the outskirts of Brentwood, Kathy Leighton methodically goes about the work that has dominated her life for more than a decade.
The 67-year-old Byron resident spends hours in the makeshift research library she's developed that sits all but hidden from view behind East Contra Costa Historical Society's museum.
"I couldn't tell you what I had for lunch yesterday, but I could tell you who the constable in Byron was in 1880," Leighton said by way of describing her fascination with life long ago in Contra Costa County's easternmost communities.
But there was a time when she couldn't have cared less.
History wasn't her strong suit in school, and Leighton remained indifferent to the subject until she was in her 50s.
That all changed about 15 years ago while she was helping cousins clear out their late mother's belongings.
Leighton's aunt had been the family historian, and as she sorted through a trunk full of memorabilia she found wedding invitations going back three generations along with locks of her great-grandmother's hair.
Neither cousin had any interest in saving the mementos and when they suggested burning them Leighton intervened.
"My aunt had taken 65 years to save it. It just seemed like a tragedy to burn it," she said.
The collection also included newspaper clippings, graduation announcements and other relics of Byron families her aunt
The first day of the project she got up at the crack of dawn intending to spend about an hour on it, but "by 3 in the afternoon I knew I was hooked on history," she recalled.
Until then Leighton, a fifth-generation descendant of farming families who settled in Byron well over a century ago, had given little thought to her lineage.
But as she pored over the records of others' lives, she began to recognize their value and decided she wasn't going to rely on some other relative to trace the family tree.
"It jarred me enough that I wanted to write something that could be put in my grandchildren's baby books," said Leighton, who soon joined the historical society.
She began by interviewing her parents along with aunts and uncles, and it wasn't long before the publisher of a local weekly newspaper invited her to share what she had learned.
Readers' enthusiastic response led to Leighton writing more columns about her roots, and when they started asking for information about their own ancestors she expanded the scope of her research.
"Before I knew it I'd written a couple hundred stories," she said.
In addition to asking longtime residents in their 80s and 90s to reminisce about the way things were, Leighton culled information from historical societies outside far East Contra Costa County.
She also scoured newspaper archives, photocopying stories on everything from a Liberty High School fire to the construction of Bethel Island's first bridge.
What Leighton read intrigued her: Why did settlers come to Byron when the neighboring community was less windy and had better soil? How did her great-grandmother manage to get 10 children dressed and into the horse-drawn wagon on time for the two-mile trip to church?
Word of Leighton's volunteer efforts spread as the trailer gradually filled with her findings.
The city of Brentwood commissioned Leighton to chronicle its history, a yearlong endeavor that produced a 266-page volume. In addition to writing about the town's first undertaker and early hotels, she included events and personalities in the surrounding communities.
Hooked on history
These days Leighton spends 10 to 12 hours a week in the trailer surrounded a veritable treasure trove of local lore.
She photocopies news articles, files court documents, and scans photos with the help of volunteers who initially dropped by for their own purposes but became regulars through Leighton's art of persuasion.
"When people come in she tries to get them hooked," said Discovery Bay resident and history buff Maureen Murray, noting that Leighton will entice them to return by suggesting they take on a project that particularly interests them.
The narrow room is jammed with records that include some 2,500 postcards, Liberty High School dance cards and yearbooks dating back to 1906, lawsuits, property deeds, and a notebook filled with the spidery cursive of land baron John Marsh's son, Charles.
Cabinets are stuffed with manila folders that each contain details on a family with long-standing ties to the area. Nunn, Guise, Bristow, Bronzan -- they're just a few of the estimated 420 names that Leighton has on file.
Lining the shelves are books on topics from Rose Hill Cemetery to three execution-style murders that occurred at a Byron tavern in 1970.
And there are the boxes upon boxes of newspapers that people bring to Leighton knowing her interest in history.
"I say 'no' to nothing," she laughed.
Leighton fields calls from college students seeking facts for a school paper and out-of-town visitors investigating their family tree.
Rather than charge them for making photocopies, Leighton asks them simply to return the favor by giving her duplicates of whatever materials they have on the region.
Civic groups invite her to give talks about their beginnings, where Leighton's storytelling abilities impressed Jody Mazzarella.
"I was goosebumped," said the longtime Bethel Island resident of the presentation she heard on her community's municipal advisory council. "You could hear a pin drop."
Inspired by Leighton's enthusiasm, Mazzarella says she now wants to establish a similar reference room dedicated to Bethel Island's history.
Leighton hopes eventually to have every document scanned; currently, only the 20,200 photos have been copied onto a hard drive.
"This is my elephant," she says, referring to the adage about the best way of tackling large projects.
And there's no end in sight to Leighton's because as long as time exists, there will be a past to preserve.
"History patiently waits for you," she said.
Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/rowenacoetsee.
Name: Kathy Leighton
Education: Utah State University at Logan
Occupation: Estimator for husband's grading and paving business
Quote: "I really can't imagine my life without history in it -- I just find it so damned interesting."