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.

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

Crawley root tea

Winifred Sturgis Lee Church
My grandmother Winnie

Whenever I, in another frenzy of research, dive into the bins of my family documents, artifacts, heirlooms, and memorabilia, I usually know what I’m looking for with little idea of what I’ll actually find, like my paternal grandmother’s herbal “recipes.” While there are more musicians in my family than medicine men or women, no one ever sang “A spoonful of sugar” to me as a child when I had to swallow my grandmother’s concoctions, decoctions, teas, infusions, tonics, and “prescriptions.” That I now remember crawley root tea in particular is evidence that it has indeed scarred me for life. Continue reading Crawley root tea

Bible studies

Doerr 1One of the resources every family historian hopes to find and treasure is a family Bible full of handwritten notations of births, marriages, and deaths. These Bibles are often beautiful in themselves for their illuminated pages, or for the well-worn leather covers molded by devoted hands. Not to be overlooked, however, are the enclosures some owners pressed between those pages, enclosures which might yield some of the basic data always sought, and which might also give insight into the owners’ personalities and the events of their daily lives. Continue reading Bible studies

A Victorian Christmas album

Lula 1
My grandmother Lula. Click on the images to expand them

Searching for anything in My Old House carries certain risks, usually in the form of an interesting distraction (corsets, small bones I still refuse to discuss, or shoe lasts). My latest search turned up my maternal grandmother’s greeting card album, so I’ve completely forgotten what it was I initially sought! The album is a treasure of illustrated birthday and calling cards from friends and relatives, small “reward of merit” cards presented by her teachers, Valentine’s Day cards, Easter cards, and, of course, Christmas cards.

Lula Atlant Roberts McLeod (1876–1958) was a teacher in the schools of central Aroostook County, Maine, before her marriage in December 1899. Christmas cards had gained popularity from their beginnings in the 1850s, and by the 1890s, when my grandmother was teaching, cards with silk fringes were offered. She signed hers “Lula Roberts, Teacher.” Continue reading A Victorian Christmas album