Preserving the Legacy of Janesville’s GM Plant

For nearly a century, this manufacturing powerhouse was a pillar in the community. Since its closure in 2008 and subsequent demolition, the race is on at Rock County Historical Society to save memories and mementos.

The legacy of the Janesville General Motors Co. assembly plant will not be forgotten, thanks to two organizations working to preserve its stories and artifacts. Generations of GM employees built not only vehicles but also good livelihoods for their families.

Rock County Legacies is being developed by the Rock County Historical Society (RCHS) and the Blackhawk Community Credit Union, the latter founded 56 years ago at the GM plant, which was GM’s No. 1 producer for many years.

This new exhibit will be located on the RCHS campus at 426 N. Jackson St., in Janesville. About 50 percent of the 5,000-square-foot, two-story museum building will be dedicated to GM workers.

“We’re excited to be collaborating with the credit union on this project to honor the thousands of people who worked at the GM plant in Janesville,” says RCHS Executive Director Timothy Maahs. “Collecting stories and artifacts is a large focus of our organization. We’re so proud of this project because it’s about the people who worked at GM. We see the pride on their faces as they talk about their experiences.”

A long-term goal for the museum is to expand beyond GM history to include similar information about other Janesville companies of the past and present, says Maahs.

Some GM artifacts are already displayed in the All About Rock County exhibit at the RCHS Museum & Visitor Center.

The Rock County Legacies project will involve several phases. A grand opening, including an exhibit showcasing many of the thousands of donated artifacts and a collection of oral histories about GM, is planned for August.

“We don’t know exactly what will be on display at this point, but unlike most company exhibits, ours will be more about the stories of the people who worked for General Motors and what the rise and fall of that company meant to our community,” says Dr. Cara Kinzelman, RCHS assistant director and curator.

RCHS has been open to visitors since 1950, when the William Tallman family donated its Italianate-style mansion in the historic Look West Neighborhood to the City of Janesville, with the agreement that it serves as a museum for the community. RCHS operates the Lincoln-Tallman House, the museum and visitors center, the Tallman Carriage House, the Frances Willard School House, the Charles Tallman Archives and the Wilson King Stone House.

Information about the local GM plant is being collected via databases, reaching out to specific people, personal appointments and a mobile collection unit that will be stationed at major events and venues, where people can stop in to donate artifacts and tell their stories.

“We want all stories,” says BHCCU Marketing Director CeeCee Philipps. “We’ve been collecting names of people at the credit union whose relatives worked at the plant. They tell us about people they know, and those people connect us with others who have information.”

RCHS and the credit union plan to work with a national company to survey a strategic representation of 50,000 people to learn what they are most interested in seeing and hearing related to the history of Rock County residents who worked at GM.

“The survey results will help to determine how Rock County Legacies can best serve the community and region,” Philipps explains.

Drywater Productions of Janesville, a video and motion graphics company, has been instrumental in helping the credit union and historical society determine what equipment to use in capturing stories and how to best store, preserve and present the information, says Terri Holznecht of Holznecht Marketing.

Many artifacts are in the hands of private individuals who bought them when sold at a public auction. Other items were rescued by the credit union, when it learned the GM building was being sold and demolished.

Dan Mezera, an auto worker on temporary layoff, was hired last September as a museum assistant for Rock County Legacies. His job is to identify and describe items and how they were used at the plant.

“I’ve always been interested in history,” says Mezera. “If we don’t rescue items and document the stories, generations of people coming up who’ve never seen the plant will not know what it meant to the community.”

His father, Paul A. Mezera, worked at GM for 40 years as a skilled tradesman who measured car bodies with a digital machine to make sure parts lined up. He adjusted the line, when needed, to keep production moving smoothly. He also was involved with changeovers when a new vehicle was introduced.

Kinzelman describes Mezera as a “phenomenal resource to the project because he has firsthand knowledge of the artifacts. Having worked at an auto plant, he can identify items or knows someone who can.”

Mezera started a “Janesville GM End of An Era” Facebook page in 2018 to archive photographs and videos he and others took or retrieved from the plant. Another Facebook page, kept current by RCHS, is called Rock County Legacies and will keep people informed of events, fundraisers, items donated and other museum developments and updates.

Mezera has been active in the Rock County Legacies Project from the beginning, helping with a brick distribution event that was open to the public for anyone who wanted a souvenir.

Among the thousands of items collected so far are a large brick tile from the Samson Tractor Company; a sign that hung over the front doors of the main entrance of the administration building; a banner signed by all employees in 2008 when the last Tahoe rolled off the line; blueprints, vehicle parts, employee badges and photos of the original building; a variety of tools; advertisements; a 75th anniversary Fisher Body belt buckle; and a rare letter opener from the same anniversary.

General Motors was founded in 1908 and in 1919 purchased the Samson Tractor Company Division and began running it out of the Janesville plant. Within a year, the plant was producing about 150 tractors a day.

Chevrolet cars began to roll off the assembly lines in 1923, and four building additions were made to keep up with production over the next 13 years.

The plant temporarily closed during the Great Depression, but Chevrolets were made again from 1934 to 1942.

During World War II, the Janesville plant made millions of artillery shells. Chevrolet production resumed after the war and the factory continued to expand in the 1950s and ’60s. In 1968, the Chevrolet and Fisher Body Divisions merged to form a single operation known as General Motors Assembly Division.

Employment peaked at 7,100 in 1978, before a series of layoffs occurred from 1974 to 2008. Workers went on strike in 1969 and 2007.

The plant stopped making full-size automobiles in 1981 and closed for four months to retool for the production of front-wheel drive cars; robot-controlled welding equipment was installed. Compact cars were built at the plant from 1982-1990. Starting in 1991, large pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles were made at the plant. By August 2005, the plant had produced 16 million vehicles.

In June 2008, General Motors announced it would cease production in Janesville within 19 months, eliminating the remaining 2,390 jobs. Demolition of the plant began in 2018.

Capturing the history of generations of people who worked at the plant will take time. Museum exhibits will be ever-changing.

“The story has to evolve,” says Maahs. “Each year the focus will be different, and other businesses that have a history here will dovetail with our mission. We’re positioning Rock County Legacies to be a regional draw and benchmark for other communities, by focusing on what the people of our community have done.”

Donations to the Rock County Legacies project are welcome. To donate or loan an artifact, or to share a story, call RCHS at (608) 756-4509.