Preserving the Legacy of Janesville’s GM

The legacy of the Janesville General Motors Automotive Assembly Plant will not be forgotten, thanks to two organizations working to preserve its stories and artifacts.

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. It will be located on the RCHS campus at 426 N. Jackson St. About 50 percent of the 5,000-square-foot two-story museum building will be dedicated to GM workers, detailing their lives and achievements.

“We’re excited to be collaborating with the credit union on this project to honor the thousands of people who worked at the General Motors plant in Janesville,” says RCHS Executive Director Timothy Maahs. “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 Rock County Legacies 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 2022.

“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 GM and what the rise and fall of that company meant to our community,” says RCHS Assistant Director and Curator Dr. Cara Kinzelman.

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.

Data about the local GM plant is being collected via data bases, reaching out to specific people, personal appointments, and through 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.

Dan Mezera, an auto worker on temporary layoff, was hired in September 2021 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.

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, donated items, and other museum developments and updates.

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

Chevrolet cars began rolling 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 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, followed by large pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles starting in 1991. By August 2005, the plant had produced 16 million vehicles.

In June 2008, GM ceased production in Janesville. Demolition of the plant began in 2018.

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. ❚