Don’t fence me in

I grew up on this long-time family-owned property next door to my paternal grandparents, Rex Church (1883–1956) and Winifred Lee (1884–1980). I saw them almost every day until their deaths, ate lunches and holiday meals with them, slept overnight there with my cousins, and saw them only as my grandparents. I suspect that, like many other people, I’ve only come to really know them as I piece together family stories.

Long after my grandparents’ deaths, my brother and I took on the task of clearing out the house in preparation for his renovations. I began to learn more about my grandparents the more old photos we found between pages of every book or magazine (I’m not sure who was reading the collected speeches of Andrew Jackson, but there it was), and taking down framed photos, mostly of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It was the photos of Rex and Winifred in fencing suits that caught my attention: they had never said anything about being fencers, no stories or newspaper articles were in evidence, and of course, I never asked about the framed photos that were always on the wall in the den, probably because they were always on the wall in the den.

Once again, old newspapers have surfaced to shed more light on their activities as young adults.  In the Boston Globe archives, my son found an article about Rex Church’s participation in the Pianelli Fencing Club in Augusta, Maine. Apparently my grandfather, long after his marriage, continued to fence in Augusta, and competed against the Bowdoin College and the Bangor Y.M.C.A. teams.

I suspect that my grandparents met at the Pianelli Fencing Club: Fred Lee, one of the judges, was my grandmother’s father. (I never knew he could fence!) Winifred was also a member of the Club, although she received considerably less press coverage. However, in one of her marriage announcements, the writer noted her accomplishments as a fencer. The articles are a wealth of family information on addresses, employment, and relationships (the Rev. J.R. Clifford was Winifred’s uncle by marriage).

Rex Otis Church, farmer and superintendent of burials, and Winifred Sturgis Lee, stenographer and woman with a sword, were married on 7 November 1906, a union which lasted for fifty years with or without weapons, until my grandfather’s death in 1956. That was a nice bit of fencing (in).

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.

8 thoughts on “Don’t fence me in

  1. What a delightful story and a reminder that our grandparents in their youth may have been very different than we imagined them to be.

    1. When I look at their fencing photos, I will now have a better understanding of the story and ability behind them. I was always very pround that “Nana Church” was an independent woman! The first time Cony introduced me, she opened the door with a bright red sweater and plaid skirt on, looking younger than her 80+ years! She got behind Cony on the snowmobile to take a spin! I liked her immediately!
      By the way, I am Janet’s sister in law.

  2. Love the fencing photo of your grandmother. I hope you’ve framed an enlargement and hung it on your wall. No surprise she lived past 90!

  3. Nice story. I love newspaper finds! Without newspapers, I would never have known that my maternal grandmother was such a “social butterfly” (for lack of better term), hosting parties, bridal showers, participating in a play or involved with planning dances, picnicking at Lake Minnetonka, MN, boating – you name it! I only knew her as an older lady who was always pleasant but didn’t talk much about herself or her youth.

    1. Newspapers especially those old columns about people in areas where everyone knew everyone else and someone reported all the events. My Mother grew up in an area where everyone up and down the road were relatives. We kidded her often that it seems she had lunch at some Aunts or with cousins that she must never had eaten at home in the summer. But she was the same, always having a Shower for a new Bride to Be or a Baby Shower as you describe. I love newspapers.

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