Story and Photos by Katie Drake
Recently, on a crisp, sunny, not-so-spring-like day, I headed over to the South Side of Little Falls to talk with Jayne Ritz. As I made my way across the bridge, I glanced down at her beautiful house on the edge of the Erie Canal. The golden rays of sunshine shining on the rippling waters of the canal were reflected back onto the big windows of her home, making them glow the color of sunshine. It struck me that just like those warm rays of sunshine, Jayne too has a way of making things around her brighter.
With spring on the horizon, tulips and other early flowers are starting to poke through the cold earth, a green sign of the changing of seasons and the promise of warmth soon to come. Spring makes me think of flowers, and when I think of flowers, I often think of Jayne Ritz. Which is how I ended up seated across from her at her dining room table that morning. Sitting next to her gorgeous blooming orchids, with a steaming hot cup of coffee and a plate of her deliciously still warm homemade scones.
Whether she is rolling her sleeves up in the kitchen or in the dirt weeding a garden, Jayne has never been afraid to work with her hands to make things around her nice. I think one of my favorite things about her, is that she can see beauty in things that others cannot. Maybe she learned to look at the world differently as a young woman when she attended college at the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston, or maybe Jayne was born with this ability.
When I asked the question, what is something that most people don’t know about you? Jayne glanced out the window at her beautiful view, smiled with her kind eyes, and thought for a moment. She shared that she wears a bracelet that she has never taken off since the day she received it as a gift a few years back, from her dear friend, Alice Laurenson. She pulled up her sleeve to show me. The bracelet has three simple words that could not be more fitting to exemplify Jayne: Be The Change.
To understand what this means is to know Jayne and know her story. “We first moved to the area in 1980 with our family. We came here because my late husband took a job with Cherry Burrell at what is now Feldmeier Equipment. We bought a wonderful old Greek revival home on a dirt road out in the country in Starkville. I was a sheep farmer. Living in the country you learn to take care of yourself. You have to be responsible for your own environment.”
How did you go from Art School to Sheep Farming? Jayne laughed, smiled, and said, “There is no way I can explain it, but it was a wonderful time in my life. Oh… it was a lot of hard work. Met a bunch of wonderful people and learned a lot along the way.”
“I was always aware of the buildings down in what is now Canal Place. And three of them caught my eye. Why wouldn’t they? They were inexpensive and original. In 1987 we bought them and renovated them. They were tenements for sale and in bad shape, boarded up, and such. The buildings are now home to the Mohawk Valley Center for the Arts, Elias Saifan’s Studio, and six apartments.”
“We started a business in one of our storefronts called, Windhover Wools, a supply business for natural fibers and weaving. We worked hard to make the area around us nice. I try as hard as I can to take care of not just the buildings, but my tenants and the property too. Throughout the years, the DPW has been a wonderful partner for Sterzinar Park. After living in the country, it’s ingrained in you that you need to be responsible for your surroundings, so we did just that, if there were weeds, we weeded. If there were cracks, we fixed them.”
“The extraordinary thing about Canal Place was that I always believed it could be so much more than a store and a few apartments. Restoring buildings and making the area look nice had an immediate effect like a ripple.”
“We were getting older and decided, why would we want to leave? So, in 1990, we moved into the ‘big city’ of Little Falls. We sold our house and became tenants of 25 West Mill Street next to Alan and Linda Vincent for 4 years. They did a beautiful job on that mill.”
“Then we bought the big white house on the corner of Garden and Jackson Streets, just up from the Youth and Family Center.” (Formerly the YMCA)
What made you decide to buy a property on the South Side? “Location, location, location. I was always aware of this waterfront building on East Jefferson Street. It was in bad shape. There were four apartments that were downright awful. It would take a lot to make them nice. So, we decided to do it.”
“We had it completely gutted, and hired an architect named Mike Rizzo. It was more like building a house. The north side of the house sits on the imaginary blue line property line that is owned by the Canal.”
“I actually don’t own the land right out the back door that’s on the side of the Canal. That is what determined the unusual shape of the house. There isn’t a square room in it. All the walls are white and the floors are black tile for the ease of keeping it up.”
“After my husband died, I had the opportunity to buy two houses across the street. They were in really poor shape, one was vacant, so I had them torn down. It was a crazy expense, but I thought if I don’t do it, who’s going to do it? So, I did. It pushed back the frontier for myself, and really improved the aesthetics.”
“The South Side is wonderful and the people are terrific. Like many homes over here, I’m fortunate to have such wonderful views. It’s just a neat place.”
And that it is. The simple, yet unique design of her home is a perfect pallet for her beautiful, interesting art collection and her gardens. It’s just very Jayne Ritz.
What is her favorite piece of art? “Oh, I don’t have a favorite. How could I? It’s like children. Each piece says something to you. Why does one appeal to me… It just does. I’d rather buy art than anything else in the world.”
This is Jayne’s story of how she got here, to Little Falls, seated at this very table overlooking her favorite view from her home, the beautiful waters of the canal. Her story certainly doesn’t end here.
In Part II of Be The Change, Jayne shares her personal motto and some of the things she’s been able to accomplish with groups of amazing people.
The opportunity to highlight the great people of Little Falls, share her personal perspectives and some humor from time to time piqued her interest and here we are.
Just ask her, and she’ll tell you that after growing up in Millers Mills, population 25+ (according to the sign), Little Falls was just the right size. Katie is the oldest of her two brothers and five sisters.
In 2020 Katie and her best friend Chris began their greatest adventure yet in 2020, with the birth of their sweet and sassy son Nolan who makes them laugh every day.
In her free time, Katie loves to snowmobile, golf, hike, and travel.
If you have feedback on one of her articles or an idea for a story, please feel free to reach out to Katie at KatherineDrakeLF@gmail.com, she would love to hear from you.
If this article leaves you wanting more, or you are just bored out of your mind, feel free to check out other articles she has contributed by visiting Katie Drake Archives – My Little Falls.