As we witness in As Goes Janesville, when the General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin closed for good in 2008, the town found itself in the midst of an identity crisis. Of course, Janesville is not entirely exceptional in this sense, as many communities around the country have been bent or broken by the economic stresses of the past five years.
But neither is the current state of affairs entirely new to Janesville. Ever a factory town and manufacturing center, Janesville and its working residents have had to adjust to the rise and fall of industries and the local businesses attached the them for well over a century. Consider, to start, that the automobile industry put Janesville’s thriving horse-drawn carriage sector out of business. Progress has its costs, and the economy takes no prisoners. Here is a pictorial history of some of Janesville’s bygone industries.
Before the age of automobiles, Janesville was the site of the Wisconsin Carriage Company. It began manufacturing carriages in Janesville in the late nineteenth century. Beginning as the Lawrence Carriage Top Company in 1885 to manufacture carriage tops, cushions, backs, and upholstery for buggies, wagons, and carriages made by other carriage companies (some of them in Janesville), it soon began to manufacture its own complete line of horse-drawn vehicles and changed its name to the Wisconsin Carriage Company. When automobiles became popular, the Wisconsin Carriage Company started manufacturing spark plugs. in 1908, it began to make an automobile known as the Wisco, which was a failure. The company continued to manufacture carriages until 1915, when the popularity of automobiles drove it out of business. It turned to making toy vehicles as the Janesville Products Co. for a while until being done in by the economy in 1940. — University of Wisconsin Digital Collection
Built on the site of the old Janesville Products Company site was this mid-century building, which housed a local vacuum cleaner business, Hydro Dynamics, Inc. In 2005 it was torn down and replaced by Janesville’s fourth Walgreen’s drug store. — University of Wisconsin Digital Collection
Tallman’s Perfume Factory manufactured “Tallman’s Florida Water” in 19th century Janesville. The Tallman family was extremely wealthy and influential, and in 1859, Abraham Lincoln stayed overnight at their mansion. This 1980s image shows the building occupied by Hulick Brothers Litho, a printing company. — University of Wisconsin Digital Collection
Shurtleff Ice Cream Factory was founded in 1878 and would later expand to a new building (since torn down to make way for law offices). In 1969, Shurtleff sold his ice cream business to Schoep Ice Cream in Madison, Wisconsin. — University of Wisconsin Digital Collection
The Parker Pen Company was founded in 1888, and made some of the world’s most popular writing implements in Janesville for almost 100 years. It’s headquarters moved to England in the 1980s after a managed buyout, and in 1993, Parker was acquired by Gillette, which sold it to Rubbermaid in 2000. In 2009, Rubbermaid shut the Janesville plant down and laid off 153 employees. Manufacturing of the Parker brand has since moved to Mexico. — University of Wisconsin Digital Collections; Wikipedia
Whitaker’s Mill was built in 1849. A Janesville Gazette article from March 11, 1871, described each floor of the mill: the lower level was used for storage, the first floor was where the double-width looms were, the second floor was for spinning, and the third floor was for machine carding of the wool. Around the turn of the twentieth century, it became known as the Rock River Woolen Mills. The mill closed in 1962 and moved its operations to Brownsville, Texas. Plastic packaging manufacturer Panoramic Corporation then took over the factory, until expanding to another part of Janesville. The site is now occupied by MMR Inc, manufacturers of promotional materials and advertising giveaways. The site may hold the distinction of being the longest continually occupied industrial site in Janesville. — University of Wisconsin; The Milwaukee Sentinel
The Janesville Cotton Mills were built in 1875. in 1906, the site became home to the Janesville Shirt and Overall Factory until the 1970s. At its height it employed about 80 workers. The building has been converted into apartments. — University of Wisconsin Digital Collection
The Janesville Caloric Company factory existed from 1908 to 1924. It manufactured the Caloric Cooker, a “fireless cook stove,” precursor to today’s slow cooker. The company operated out of an old furniture factory. The Caloric Cooker consisted of an insulated cabinet with one or more deep wells fitted with soapstones on the top and on the bottom. After the stones were heated and the food was put into the wells, one stone was placed at the top and the bottom of the stove. You could close the lid and the meal would be cooked without danger of its burning. About 150 men were employed by this company when it was in full production. The cookers sold for $8.50 – $15, depending on the number of wells, and came with a 160-page book on how to use it. The company moved operations to Pennsylvania in 1924. Caloric is still a kitchen appliance brand now owned by Whirlpool and manufactured in Michigan. In the 1960s, the Caloric Company launched the iconic ad slogan “Now you’re cooking with gas.” — University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Accudyne manufactured artillery, fuses, and the components of antipersonnel landmines for the U.S. military, receiving $150 million in Pentagon contracts between 1985 and 1995. Alliant TechSystems — one of the largest defense contractors in the country — bought the company in 1993 and soon threatened to close the Janesville plant. In 1996, then-Governor Tommy Thompson worked with the United Auto Workers and arranged for the state to give Alliant $1 million in tax credits and a $250,000 loan to persuade the company keep the Janesville factory in operation and save 250 union jobs. It didn’t last. In 2005, Alliant moved its Janesville operations to its West Virginia facility. Union employees of the plant could follow their jobs to West Virginia if they wanted to keep them. — University of Wisconsin Digital Collection; Albion Monitor; Wisconsin State Journal
The Janesville Machine Company manufactured farm implements. In 1917, nascent General Motors bought The Samson Tractor Company of California and then acquired the Janesville Machine Company the following year for $1 million, in a play to compete with Ford Motor Company in the manufacture of tractors. Manufacturing was consolidated built its Janesville factory and in 1919 — as the Samson Tractor Company — the first tractors and other farm machinery, including cultivators and plows, rolled off the assembly line. Samson also manufactured trucks between 1920 and 1922. The operation proved a dismal failure, and in 1923 GM closed its Samson division and transferred the plant to its Chevrolet division. It later made a wide range of GM cars, trucks, and SUVs until its closure in 2008. — University of Wisconsin Digital Collection; Wikipedia; Janesville Gazette-Xtra
(Additional sources include: Rock County Wisconsin, a New History of its Cities, Villages, Towns, citizens and Varied Interests, From the Earliest Times, Up To Date, by William Fiske Brown, 1908; Janesville, by Judith Adler and Den Adler, 2011)