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 WBUR.org’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.

The house by the side of the road

When my brother was little (long ago and not far away), he would lull himself to sleep by reciting the phrase on an antique cross-stitched sampler of a house which hung on the wall over his bed: “Let me live in a house by the side of the road and be a friend to man.” This simple sampler makes me think about how many things change yet remain the same in my neighborhood.

I have come to understand that my family history is intrinsically linked to the houses my ancestors built as well as the area in which they built them, two inseparable elements which complement each other, and which provide fodder for my “family stories.” Continue reading The house by the side of the road

A block buster

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Most of us will remember the childhood Alphabet Song used to teach children their letters (hum along if you’d like): “A-B-C-D-E-F-G… Now I’ve learned my ABCs, tell me what you think of me.” Vita Brevis has given a new variation on this “alpha-tradition.”

In my post “If This House Could Talk,” I mentioned my grandfather Rex Church (1883–1956) and his childhood handmade wooden alphabet blocks. The photo I provided showed only the four blocks representing the surname initials of the four families who have lived in My Old House since its construction in 1789. Continue reading A block buster

A letter home

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A letter from Hannah (Brown) Libby.

The bins of my family memorabilia (my “squirrel bins”) occasionally allow a real gem or two to escape, those things I hope to find but which seldom surface: diaries, journals, or letters.

One such gem is a faded, handwritten letter dated Boise City, May 15, 1870. Written by Hannah (Brown) Libby to “Dear Mother Libby,” it is a poignant expression of homesickness while trying to maintain a positive outlook, an offer of more questions to be answered than answers given. I was intrigued, especially because this Hannah and “Mother Libby” are two faceless women in my long lineage. I have no photo of either woman, no other correspondence, writings, or stories. Continue reading A letter home

Christmas cookies

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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

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“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

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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

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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

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“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