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.

He said. She said

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At our dinner table recently, talk turned to a discussion of family stories, specifically the story that our great great-great-great-grandfather, George Read, refused to paint his chimneys white in the English style because he was so opposed to British oppression. Son, He of the Flypaper Mind (everything sticks to it!), challenged the origin of the tale, asking “How do you know that? Do we have any documents he wrote about it, or his diary, for instance?” At something of a loss given his significant lack of respect for The Family Story, I turned to Husband, a retired attorney, for his input and support, but got the legal definition of “hearsay” instead. Continue reading He said. She said

‘If only you wouldn’t explain’

“I might understand if only you wouldn’t explain.”[1]

The contours of this year’s two hundredth anniversary of Maine’s statehood have been undeniably unexpected. Most anniversary celebrations here were cancelled or postponed, leaving most Mainers “celebrating” from the comfort of their homes. I began to think about the convergence of ancestral factors in my family history, Spanish Flu and Covid-19 aside.

My cousin Asa Williams, the builder of Our Old House, came to Maine about the same time and from a nearby Massachusetts town as my great-great-great-great-grandfather George Read, with their wives (who were third cousins and stepsisters), settling at the Fort Western Settlement, the area’s trading post, bank, and social venue, the center of the tiny community’s daily life. Continue reading ‘If only you wouldn’t explain’

‘The more things change…’

Charles and Harriett Saunders, ca. 1872-97.

Shortly after the Covid-19 stay-at-home order was implemented in Maine, Son remarked that living in My Old House, now known as Our Old House, is like living in two centuries at once, the eighteenth, nineteenth, or twentieth centuries – as well as the twenty-first.

In the eighteenth century, when this house was built, my ancestors’ daily lives as farmers were “at home.” Now, as the prodigal farmers’ daughter living in their house during the Covid-19 pandemic, I’ve planted a small garden and signed on with local farmers for the vegetables, dairy, and meat supplies I either decline to produce on my own or lack the wherewithal to grow. Continue reading ‘The more things change…’

Down on the Farm

Between the dawn and the daylight, while the Keurig was doing its “wackadoo wackadoo wackadoo” thing brewing my morning coffee carafe, I read an article about how climate change is affecting current agricultural practices. This was nothing new to me because I’d seen changes in some of those practices as I grew up. One aspect of researching family histories is the temptation and ability to look back and compare what was to what is. I once asked my paternal grandmother (Winifred Church, 1884–1980) how she felt about all the history she had seen in her lifetime (covered wagons and farming on the Kansas prairie to men on the moon). She just laughed and didn’t answer! But I not only live in the area where most of my family history takes place, I live in that history on the land my ancestors farmed, so I thought about the similarities and changes in our farm equipment. This was a job for the Squirrel Bins, and they quickly reminded me about all the “farm photos” I still have!

The farming methods used by my family probably hadn’t changed much between the late 18th century and the early 20th century.

The farming methods used by my family probably hadn’t changed much between the late 18th century and the early 20th century when my paternal grandfather Rex O. Church (1883–1956) ran a dairy farm and became a John Deere Agricultural Implements dealer.

Down on the Farm

Continue reading Down on the Farm

The Family Curmudgeon: Charles Otis Cony

cur·mudg·eon /kərˈməjən/:
noun: curmudgeon: a bad-tempered person, especially an old one

Longevity is not uncommon in my old New England family. Charles Otis Cony was born on August 7, 1836 to John and Experience Read Cony, the daughter of Revolutionary War veteran George Read. A carpenter, joiner, and farmer, when he died in 1924, he had spent his entire life in the house his grandfather had built in 1789.

The Family Curmudgeon
Charles O. Cony (now I know where I get my ears!)

That my great-great grandfather Charles Otis lived to be almost 90 is not highly unusual. It is the perspective of that long life that I find fascinating: as a youngster my father talked to a man who had lived with a Revolutionary War veteran. It shortened almost 200 years to a concept I could mentally grasp. I wanted to know more about a man who had seen so much history, so many wars, and so many advances in industrialization and technology. I had heard some stories from Dad about Charles Otis, some of which my father insisted I couldn’t publish until he was long dead. I wanted to align those stories with items I’d found in my research about Charles. Continue reading The Family Curmudgeon: Charles Otis Cony

The occasional cognac

S. & W. Howard account book 3, showing the Asa Williams account. Courtesy of Linda Novak, Director/Curator, Old Fort Western

There are those theorists who say that time is a river with many bends, and that if we could look back around one of those bends, we’d see the past. I think of that whenever I cross the Kennebec River here in Augusta on my way to Old Fort Western. If I could see around the river’s bend, would I see my ancestor, the Pilgrim John Howland, arriving to establish the Cushnoc Trading Post for the Plymouth Colony in 1628? I might find my house-builder cousin, Asa Williams, on his way to the Fort in 1777, or his brother Seth trading at the S. & W. Howard store in 1790. Maybe my great-great-great-great-grandfather George Read would be galloping by to call the midwife Martha Ballard to help deliver his first child,[1] or perhaps I’d see that same midwife on her way to view an autopsy in Eunice (Fisher) Williams’s kitchen.[2] Continue reading The occasional cognac

Love and the French Foreign Legion

The Jeopardy question/answer would be: What do Cupid and the French Foreign Legion have in common.

The answer/question would be: Who is Vincent Allemany?

*

I wanted to find out if the stories Husband related about his step-grandfather’s life were true. Indeed, I wanted to verify what little we knew about him. What I found was an individual who as a youth had found adventure first and troubles later. Continue reading Love and the French Foreign Legion

The long way around

My ancestors are like everyone else’s ancestors, I suspect: entertaining, frustrating, sometimes obstinately invisible, always playing hide and seek, changing our perspectives and perceptions of them and of ourselves. They leave us their legacies and properties, perhaps confident that we will care for them as they themselves would without considering that we might develop other plans. Continue reading The long way around

The Ghost of Failures Past

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I have a ghost standing at my shoulder, pointing a skeletal finger at my family history “to do” list to remind me of my deficiencies. This ghost arrives at year’s end when The Weekly Genealogist arrives with a survey asking if I’ve completed my genealogical goals, and then asking what my goals are for the coming year.

Wait! There’s a difference? Continue reading The Ghost of Failures Past

Tell me a story

[Editor’s note: Vita Brevis will mark its fifth anniversary on Wednesday. The blog launched with some early posts on 2 January 2014; the official launch followed on 10 January 2014.]

Over the years, my efforts in tracing my family history have morphed from old-fashioned paper research to computer research to concentrating on the stories of my ancestors, whether I knew them personally or not. Family stories are what give life and voice to those who have “moved on.” And how much do you really know about the early lives of your living relatives, especially those with decades of stories to share? Talking to our “elders,” listening to stories of other families, or reading about other researchers’ exploits, techniques, failures, and successes are a few ways to dig out the stories. Reading posts on Vita Brevis is another wonderful resource. Continue reading Tell me a story