GM's impact felt throughout Janesville
JANESVILLE It’s often been said that as General Motors goes, so goes the United States or so goes Wisconsin.
While that may be debatable, there’s no question about the automaker’s impact on Rock County and Janesville.
Since GM rolled into town in 1918 and 1919 to build Samson Tractors, the big company in Detroit and the small community in the farm fields of southern Wisconsin have been joined at the hip.
As the company grew, so did Janesville. As the automaker struggled, so did Janesville.
“I learned very early on that General Motors was the core of the community,” said U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, a 1971 graduate of the Janesville high school named for the man who brought GM to Janesville.
“My father made it very clear that the success of the GM plant was critical to our family's well being.”
Whether it’s the millions of dollars the automaker and its employees have poured into the local economy or their deep support of charitable causes, GM and its people have fostered the community’s well being.
“I’ve come to realize that GM and its antecedents were the beginnings of turning this community into a city,” said Janesville historian Maurice Montgomery.
“They really had a tremendous impact.”
For GM to come to Janesville, the city needed an infrastructure to accommodate it: housing and the streets and sewers that go with it, schools to educate workers’ children and a reliable source of power that the small companies in Janesville, Fulton, Indianford and various other crossroad communities couldn’t supply.
Janesville funeral director Neal Schneider came to Janesville in 1956 and served on the city council from 1966 to 1970.
“I think there was only one shift working at the plant, but we seemed to be building a new elementary school every year,” Schneider said. “(City Manager) Joe Lustig said it was because everyone coming to work at the plant was a man, his wife and three kids, and we had to make room for them.”
And thanks to Joseph A. Craig, who convinced General Motors to come to Janesville, the automaker’s reach extended well beyond Janesville’s growing city limits.
“Craig was very involved in the youth movement, particularly the 4-H movement,” Montgomery said. “He got all his middle management involved in spreading the word about 4-H, and that had a tremendous impact on the youth of the county and its agriculture.”
Feingold and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, also a Janesville native and Craig grad, said GM was the runaway leader in building the local economy.
“That plant was the nucleus of our economy,” said Ryan, who has watched the city’s population double in his lifetime. “It provided a great standard of living that produced great families that have contributed to the community in so many ways.
“I’ve heard some people say, ‘I don’t work there; it doesn’t have anything to do with me.’” Are you kidding? It’s pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy, paying wages, creating ancillary jobs and paying taxes.
“It touches every person in this community.”
Feingold summed up GM’s impact on the community quite simply.
“It’s the lynchpin of the community,” he said. “The idea of not having stable, decent incomes presents a very frightening situation.”
Also frightening is what the loss of GM will mean to the charitable and volunteer organizations that have come to depend so heavily on the automaker and its employees.
The United Way of North Rock County, for example, annually funds up to a quarter of its budget from GM’s employee campaign, the automaker’s corporate contribution and a long list of in-kind donations.
“Over the years, GM and the United Auto Workers have been strong partners with the United Way, and that’s been particularly true in our area,” said Gail Graham, the organization’s president.
“In addition to GM’s role in the community, we all have family members and friends who have worked for GM, which provided wonderful incomes and a great standard of living that everyone in our community has benefited from in one way or another.
“It will be a devastating loss.”
Schneider agreed, saying the plant has produced generations of workers who have been involved contributors to the community.
He recently helped a family with funeral arrangements. One family member, a man with 22 years in at the plant, told Schneider that Janesville is a great place to live and a great place to raise a family.
“He so wants to be able to stay here,” Schneider said. “As we lose GM, the one thing I hope is that we can keep its great workforce and attract other industries that can put them to work.”
Feingold, Ryan and a group of others are working to do just that, but they know the odds are long.
“I’ve always carried a tremendous sense of pride over that plant and the cars built in Janesville,” Feingold said. “I’ve bragged about it every chance I could out of a sense of gratitude.
“I’m not giving up on this thing, and I hope that when all this craziness settles out, the judgment will be that there’s a place for GM in Janesville.”