Pastel portraits

We all have them, those ancestors who seem to fade into the long-ago background of family history. Perhaps they’re not even our relatives, just names heard frequently but without context, or in a wedding guest book, a newspaper column, or in an obituary. The figures are distinguishable, but so unfamiliar that they are blurred whether pastel in color or in sepia or gray.

A few years ago when I was muttering (complaining, whining, moaning) about all the unidentified photos I had inherited, I was pointedly, and quite rightly, reminded that at least I have photos about which to mutter. Some of those piles have been culled, some identified, leaving me with two stacks of studio portraits, one of which is clearly marked with each person’s name and “CHS ’02” or “Cony ’02.” They are graduates of Cony High School, my paternal grandmother Winifred Sturgis (Lee) Church’s high school class, but none of them are of her, and none of the names were familiar to me.

So I created a spreadsheet of those names, checked census records, newspapers, family trees, and any basic research ideas I could apply.

So I created a spreadsheet of those names, checked census records, newspapers, family trees, and any basic research ideas I could apply. “Basic” is clearly the operative word here! Other than names, dates, and a few places and occupations, nothing in the way of enlightenment on Winnie’s high school friends came to light. They have, for me, faded into an obscure background of my grandmother’s teen years, a collage of a few photos without the accompanying stories.

I pulled out one family photo of Winifred Lee and friends in “bathing costumes” (risqué they’re not!), nicely labelled with names (shown above).

In that photo, the lady second from right is Eva Penney (1883?-1947), one of Winnie’s classmates. Further investigation revealed that “Maude” was Maude Morris (1883-1963, who later married George Straffin), and Elsie Jones (1883-1950, who later married Edward Colburn, Jr.). Whether they were classmates as well as friends remains a question.

Because the “bathing beauties” photo had to have been taken at the Lee family camp, Camp Wichita on Lake Maranacook (Winthrop, Maine) sometime after 1903, when it was purchased, I checked the camp’s guest book as well as Winifred and Rex Church’s wedding guest book: Eureka! The Straffins and the Colburns were frequent guests at the camp, along with Blanche Fuller and Essie Fisher. Maude Straffin, Blanche Fuller, and Essie Fisher were three of the few friends who attended my grandparents’ wedding (“only the immediate relatives and friends”), and the three of them are more Pastel Portraits. Of the unnamed graduation photos, might one be Blanche?

“Reading through the lines” of the camp guest book and wedding documents, Winifred Lee Church (1884-1979) had many friends who married or not, moved or not, but who stayed in touch with Christmas cards or postcards, none of which filled out their stories, and all of which led to the portraits of their lives in faded sepia or gray photos, for me at least. Someone, somewhere, knows more about these friends of hers, and I am comfortable thinking that they will not remain (indefinitely) Pastel.

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.

5 thoughts on “Pastel portraits

  1. Yes, I have them too, but one my cousin identified as “friends of her Mother,” unsure of their names, black & white photo on a post card never sent through the mails. This cousin was a wonderful artist so she painted a picture of them in color. Made the hats so pretty. Then she gave me the painting. I have it hanging above my desk. Not knowing them but the way she brought them to life is wonderful and this cousin knew of my love of hats. I value it beyond price!

  2. I love this! My grandmother graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1905. There are pictures of her at Lake Minnetonka and other places in Minneapolis area. I had not known that my grandmother was a member of a sorority until a few years ago. In old yearbooks, I was able to find several of her friends – and a sorority photo. In old postcards and newspaper items, there are mentions of some of those friends. I’ve really been building a picture of my grandmother’s early life. Yes, even crazy enough to research some of the friends and marriages – lol.

  3. Jan, perhaps you could post the pictures with the names you have and some of the information you uncovered on an Augusta FaceBook page and perhaps relatives of those folks might see them and be able to give you more information. They might even want the photos you have and might even have a photo of Winifred Lee in their old photo collections!

  4. I also inherited hundreds of photos, many of which I am definitely NOT related to. I have been able to identify a number of these ‘unrelatives’ (friends, associates and neighbors) and have entered their photos into FamilySearch in the ‘Memories’ section with their appropriate families so that their true relatives might find the photo someday. To date my entries have been the only photos that have been entered for that person.

    1. That was so very thoughtful of you, I hope that some of their relatives will indeed find their photos someday.

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