All posts by Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.

Christmas cookies

winifred-1 winifred-2

One early December a few years ago, my son asked if I would fill a cookie basket for his new landlord’s two little boys. I was making multiple dozens of cookies at the time, so I stuffed a green wooden Christmas basket for them and sent it off.

The following July when my son was visiting his landlord, the youngest boy approached carrying the basket as if to say “Please, Sir, may we have more?” Since then, the basket finds its way back to me in summer, and I overfill it for them every Christmas. It’s a new tradition of sorts, however short-lived it might be. Continue reading Christmas cookies

The spitting image

“Ready to roll”

Oral histories are always interesting, often fun, and sometimes “tall,” especially when it comes to snow stories: “I had to walk to school, three miles up hill each way, barefoot in deep snow…” Snow in New England is just a fact of life, and one my ancestors took in stride even when the snowfall was excessive. My somewhat reticent father told me only a few stories, mostly with the admonition to “don’t publish until after I’m gone!!” The story of one “adventure” he and his older brother had one winter came without restriction: Continue reading The spitting image

‘If this house could talk’

Eunice's fireplace
Eunice Williams’s fireplace

My grandfather’s childhood wooden alphabet letters stand on my kitchen fireplace mantel, designating the four families in my “family thicket” who have lived in this house since its construction in 1789: Williams, Saunders, Church, and Doerr. Researching our ancestors is one thing, researching house histories is another, but often they are irrevocably intertwined.

Researching the life and family of Asa Williams, the cordwainer, tanner, blacksmith, and farmer who built My Old House, means that I also research the house itself. Through vital records, census records, and local histories combined with deeds and probate records, I have tried to find the stories, from Asa’s purchase of the land in 1777 to the shoe last which fell out of my ceiling. Continue reading ‘If this house could talk’

Your questions answered

The Asa Williams House, ca. 1912

Sometimes we all, like Tennessee Williams, depend on the kindness of strangers – whether we realize it or not. While I’ve always shared my family research and stories, it has been only recently that I’ve come to understand how initiative, serendipity, and luck work together.

Four families – all my cousins – have lived in My Old House for the last 227 years, fine New England families who undoubtedly followed the old axiom “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Continue reading Your questions answered

‘Where was the music?’

Doerr music 2It may surprise you to read (or not, if you’re family) that I have squirrels in my closets. They nest in bins, and hide under papers, books, or textiles when I want to find one, or shout for attention when I don’t. But I like living indoors without wildlife, so these are not the red or gray, bushy-tailed squirrels, but the genealogical kind described by Meaghan E.H. Siekman in her essay “Chasing a Squirrel.” Continue reading ‘Where was the music?’

Memories of things unknown

Doerr Church 3
Ambrose S. Church (1861-1896)

Many family history researchers are hard-pressed to find personal information, photographs, memorabilia, or heirlooms to treasure and preserve. I am not one of them, and yet I seem to have a remarkable supply of “memories of things unknown,” the scraps of someone’s attempt to memorialize a moment or a personality in a manner obvious to the author but obscure to later generations. I have stacks of unmarked photos of unnamed family members, locations, cattle, horses, barn cats, and especially Dalmatian dogs.

My great-grandfather Ambrose Church’s autograph book from his school days at the Oak Grove Seminary in Vassalboro, Maine – a girls’ school founded by the Society of Friends, but open as co-ed to local children – is a case in point. Continue reading Memories of things unknown

Well be gone

Asa Williams well 1
“My Old House”

Researching family history takes us to many places: libraries, museums, various genealogical repositories (New England Historic Genealogical Society, of course!), cemeteries, and . . . driveways. An historical archaeological adventure is the sort of research that happened when I wasn’t looking!

The dooryard and then the driveway of my old Asa Williams house had always been hard-packed dirt, until in 1979 my father had the chance to have it paved, making it easier to plow in winter and eliminating the usual signs of mud season. If asphalt improved the look of things, it also covered a multitude of landscaping sins. Continue reading Well be gone

Once in a blue moon

Everyone who indulges in family history research understands the role that serendipity plays in successfully locating the ancestors we seek. I have recently come to understand what a confluence of serendipity and a blue moon can mean to my research, my focus on family stories, and a brick wall.

A blue moon occurred on Saturday, 21 May 2016, a day I had arranged a first meeting with a distant Saunders-Cummings cousin to share family stories and data. Her arrival was preceded by an totally unexpected visit by another distant cousin in the same Cummings line. The day was full of family stories and photos. My patient husband managed to endure, but later commented that he had no family stories to tell. (Never a prophet in my own house!) Continue reading Once in a blue moon

The little black book

Ambrose Church 1One of the most thoughtful gifts my son has ever given me is a small, black journal with blank pages which I carry with me every day. Kevin’s instructions to me at the time were to write down my memories as well as my family’s memories and stories. His good intentions became my inspiration and abiding interest, my focus in my family history research, and my obligation.  Scribbling madly, I started asking for stories to preserve for our following generations.

I soon understood that there is a significant difference between stories and memories. Memories are the foundation and basis for the stories they may become as time puts them in a different context. While some are skeletons in the making, our family stories give us a better understanding of our ancestors’ characters and their perspectives on their world, as well as some insight into their actions and motivations. Continue reading The little black book

Making the skeletons dance

Jan Doerr hospital bill
An offending hospital bill

In his 1930 novel Immaturity, George Bernard Shaw wrote, “If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.” Shaw had a point with that statement. While we can deny them, hide them, or ignore them, we can’t remove the family skeletons from their places in our family trees. Once they’re “out of the closet,” those dry bones will walk around; what we make of them is up to us.

Scott C. Steward’s recent reposting of his article Genealogical Complexities brought to my mind the dilemma of all family history: how much do we really want to know, and what responsibility do we have in dispensing that information? Continue reading Making the skeletons dance