Jake and Janelle Stoltzfus were in need of a home that could accommodate their family of seven, plus Grammy Annie. Their search led them to a classic cottage on the banks of Mill Creek. “This house is so special to us,” says Janelle. “It’s where our kids are growing up and it’s where our businesses – JKS & Co. and Millstream Home – were born.”
During the early decades of the 20th century, it was customary for people from Lancaster, Reading and Philadelphia to build summer cottages and cabins along the banks of the county’s waterways. “Ours dates to the 1930s,” Janelle says of the one-acre creekside property they ultimately purchased in 2014. “The house definitely needed some love but we were excited by the possibilities it offered.”
Transforming the house to suit their needs would not be an issue – Jake has been involved in construction since the age of 15, when he started framing houses, while Janelle has always had a talent for design. “Playing house was my favorite thing to do as a child,” she says.
The two also had that “special something” – work ethic and creativity – in their favor, which they credit to their Amish roots. Janelle, who is one of eight children, explains that her parents left the Amish after the birth of their fourth child. “I have aunts, uncles and cousins who are Amish,” she says. Jake, who is the youngest of four, is the son of Grammy Annie, who left the Amish 30 years ago.
“How old do you think I am?” asks Annie K. Stoltzfus – she always includes the “K” because “there are a lot of Annie Stoltzfuses around,” she notes. She counters my wrong answer with 81. In those 81 years, she’s led an eventful life.
Annie grew up on a farm in Lebanon County. She was one of 14 children. Her mother died when she was three months old. Her father remarried when she was 2-1/2. She started cooking at the age of 8 and from 12 to 21, she cooked for one of her brothers and his wife who shared the family homestead. “I didn’t like cleaning the house or doing laundry, so I cooked,” she explains.
Her cooking chores included helping to bake bread for a farmers’ market in Newmanstown. “My mother and I would make 75 loaves every Wednesday and 75 loaves on Thursday. It was all done by hand. We didn’t have ‘Amish electricity’ back in those days,” she says.
Annie attended school through the eighth grade. That’s where she met her future husband. “We lived a mile apart,” she recalls. They began dating when they were teens and were married in a traditional Amish wedding – 250 guests, who were served both lunch and dinner – on November 1, 1962.
Annie fulfilled the role of being a dutiful Amish wife. While her husband worked their 60-acre farm, she cooked, baked bread (10 loaves a week), sewed, maintained her garden and prepared for winter by “putting up” 300 quarts of applesauce, 200 quarts of peaches, 60 quarts of pears, 25 quarts of beets and dozens of quarts of pickles (four varieties). She became a mother to a daughter and three sons.
Winter didn’t provide much downtime. She used those months to sew clothing for her family – pants, shirts, dresses, coats and capes. “I used a treadle sewing machine,” she explains. “Sometimes I’d be so tired, I’d have the kids work the pedal.”
No matter the weather, the laundry would be done on a designated day. She hated hanging the wash out to dry on a rainy or damp day because the low-hanging electrical wires that crisscrossed the farm would send shock waves across the wash line.
Sadly, Annie’s husband died in 1990. She shares the three photographs she has of him, one of which includes her dressed in Amish garb. “He was very kind to me,” she says. “We had a good life.”
Annie, who found herself a widow at 51, made the decision to leave the Amish. “That was very brave of her,” Janelle states. “My parents left because of a church split and had the support of others who also left. Annie was on her own.”
She moved to Lancaster County, where her daughter lived. Jake, who was only 17 (and also made the choice to leave the Amish), built a house for her. She learned to drive. She shopped for clothes. “Oh, to be able to wear something that you didn’t have to make,” she says of the thrill of buying clothing for the first time. Now, sewing is simply a hobby that she enjoys.
However, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. For the most part, she continues to be shunned by her siblings.
In need of new scenery, Annie drove to Tampa, Florida, to start a new life. “I felt like a bird out of a cage,” she says. “I needed to spread my wings.” She lived in various areas of Florida for seven years, working for three of those years in the kitchen of homeless shelter, where she would prepare 70 to 80 meals a day. For a time, she was a caregiver. She lived in basements and a trailer.
Jake ultimately followed his mother to Florida, where he happened to meet a girl from Lancaster named Janelle. They clicked. He followed her back to Lancaster. They’ve been married for 18 years.
Recognizing that Jake and Annie were a “package deal,” Janelle broached the subject of Annie living with them, telling Jake, “it’s not right for her to be a vagabond.” They proposed the idea to her in 2011 and she gladly accepted the invitation. Jake transformed a carriage house in their previous home’s backyard into an apartment for Annie.
“It was one of the best decisions we ever made,” Janelle says of a gesture that was seemingly an extension of their Amish roots. “Our children can view aging through a beautiful lens,” she notes. “They get to spend a lot of time with her; thanks to her, they know what love tastes like,” she continues, referring to Annie’s cooking skills. “Who needs pre-school when you have a Grammy to teach you the things you need to know.”
As for Annie, she appreciates the communication skills she has learned through living with Jake and his family. “It’s so nice to be able to express and share what you are feeling,” she says. “I was never taught that growing up. Living with Jake and Janelle has been the highlight of my life.”
Down by the Old Mill Stream
Of course, one of the requirements of a new home would be living quarters for Annie. The property along Mill Creek easily lent itself to that. Jake was able to transform the original kitchen, a bedroom, a bathroom and a sunroom into Annie’s private apartment. Outdoors, she has access to a large deck. She and one of her grandchildren had spent the morning painting it on the day we visited. “She makes me tired!” Janelle says of her mother-in-law’s boundless energy. The deck is surrounded by flower gardens that she tends.
When the Stoltzfuses first spied the cottage, the living room in the main house was a vision of yellow – as in knotty pine – floor to ceiling. A bridge connected a loft area on one side of the room to a door that accessed the bedrooms on the second floor. The two retained the knotty pine, painting it a creamy white, and eliminated the bridge. “The loft used to be Jake’s office,” Janelle reports.
In need of a new kitchen, the two went to work designing and installing a cottage-inspired space – she calls it “modern cottage” – that replaced a porch. It features white cabinetry, granite, a huge bay window over the sink, a porcelain-tile backsplash and stainless appliances. The original porch floorboards and wainscoting also figure into the design. Space for dining adjoins the kitchen.
On the lower level, they transformed a double-car garage (located in an addition a previous owner built) into a home office and a laundry room. A portion of the lower level is also home to Janelle’s Millstream Home studio that began doubling as a classroom for virtual learning in March. A gazebo, patio and dock create an outdoor-living area.
JKS & Co.
Annie calls her son, “The hardest-working man I know.” Janelle describes Jake as “one of the most creative people” she knows. “He loves the whole building process and isn’t afraid to learn something new,” she says. “He’s a creative problem solver.”
Their own kitchen inspired them to consider launching a design/build company. “Visitors just loved our kitchen,” Janelle says. “That gave us the confidence we needed – maybe people would be interested in having us do work at their home.” Still, launching a new business is not for the faint of heart. They turned to prayer and with renewed confidence in their vision, JKS & Co. was born. Janelle went to work – after the kids were in bed – designing a website and marketing materials. “We wanted to be small, precise and in control,” she adds. “I think the personal touch we offer is what sets us apart.”
The focus of JKS & Co. is remodeling, renovations, additions and outdoor-living spaces. The two work in tandem, doing the estimating and executing the designs together.
Family remains a priority. “Our goal is to stay within 20 miles of Lancaster; I like to go on-site at least once a week and still be able to get our kids to their activities,” Janelle explains. “We did make an exception earlier in the year – not knowing how Covid was going to affect the business – by taking on a project in Malvern.” The couple veered further afield in the spring by buying an investment property along the Delaware coast, which they remodeled in 37 days.
To Jake’s surprise, “Covid has actually helped our business. People began to realize that they needed to make changes in their homes to create spaces for offices and classrooms” he notes. “Because they are spending so much time cooking, they are rethinking their kitchens and updating them. And, since people aren’t traveling as much, outdoor-living spaces have become important to them.”
One day about five years ago, Janelle was decorating her home and realized how few keepsakes she has. “Everything was from Pottery Barn and Target,” she explains of items that were destined to become throwaways and not treasured heirlooms to pass on to her children. Then, she spied a small rocking chair by the fireplace that had been Jake’s when he was a child. “It just brought that warm, handmade look to the room,” she recalls.
The rocking chair inspired an idea. “We are surrounded by creative people,” she says of the Amish craftspeople and makers whose creations are a magnet for tourists. Janelle’s idea was to “elevate what they already make.” She spent Saturdays driving the backroads looking for craftspeople and makers who were willing to work with her. “Everyone I met with was so gracious and excited to help,” she says of the potters, woodturners, basket makers, toy makers, hat makers, quilters, seamstresses, blacksmiths, leather makers, candle makers and broom weavers (everyone knows the Amish make the best brooms) she recruited. Millstream Home was born.
Products, all of which are made by Amish craftspeople and makers:
“We now have 80 unique products that are made in Lancaster County by the Amish,” she remarks. She likes that her heirloom-quality products support family-owned businesses and are eco-friendly in that they are not meant to be discarded but passed on to the next generation.
Janelle has purposely kept the business low key. “For now, I just want to concentrate on getting our name out there,” she explains. A website catalogue attracts retail customers from near and far. “We’re shipping nationwide,” she says. “Wholesale is what keeps me busy, which in turn is keeping the makers busy.” She is entertaining the idea of opening a small shop in the future.
“We feel blessed to be able to be dream chasers,” Janelle says of the entrepreneurial spirit “that is part of our DNA. I was a stay-at-home mom for 12 years, but I always loved the idea of operating a business that would allow me to be creative. For now, Jake and I are staying focused on our dreams and vision – we’re very driven people who just happen to enjoy doing what we love!”
Making a Multi-generational Household Work
Janelle and Annie Stoltzfus share what works for them:
Respect the ways others choose to live and what is important to their existence. “For instance, Grammy loves a good clean window and I can’t remember the last time I washed my windows,” says Janelle. “I may occasionally help her clean her windows or send one of my children to help, but she never mentions to me how dirty my windows might be. We each have places we like to put our energy and we must not judge the expression of that energy in another.”
Janelle tries to remember Annie was a mother before she was a mother-in-law. “My husband is her son and they had a relationship long before I came along. I want that relationship to continue and creating space for them to interact on their own terms is important. Someday, I can only hope my three sons might love and respect me the way Jake does his mother.”
Honor the past in the present. “Grammy does things differently and they are just as beautiful, because they are her ways,” Janelle explains. “I am sure she wonders at my ways,” she says of sleeping in “late,” buying pre-made foods from Costco and not weeding her flowerbeds.
Respect each other’s privacy. Annie loves her privacy – as one of 14 children, that was difficult to come by. That includes not wandering unannounced into each other’s space. Despite living under the same roof, “We always call or text to see what schedules look like,” says Janelle.