Recordings highlight Janesville's history
Library GM projects
The staff at Hedberg Public Library is planning other GM-related events and programs. They include:
-- A program at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 19, to highlight GM and UAW historical material available at the library.
-- A themed GM/UAW display in the program room.
-- A future push to record the memories of more recent GM employees.
-- Continued collection of reference materials. For instance, GM officials recently offered boxes of material to the library, including 15 years of the employee newsletter that staff hope to put online.
Those who want to donate reference material, such as newspaper clippings and photos, should call the library reference desk at (608) 758-6581.
To hear or read the interviews with a dozen retired Janesville workers, go online to hedbergpubliclibrary.org/ in_their_own_words.html.
JANESVILLE "I landed on a job, and jobs was hard to get. If you wasn’t working, you wasn’t eating."
So says Eugene Osmond, telling about getting a job at the Chevrolet plant in 1928 at the age of 19.
His life and the lives of 11 other men are captured on tape and available on the Hedberg Public Library website. The recollections include the first union meeting in Lien garage, hobo jungles, riding the rails and even an elephant stampede charging down a Janesville street.
Patrons can now go online to read the words and hear the accounts of those who witnessed history.
-- Osmond—in a strong, rhythmic and succinct manner—talks about growing up in rural Janesville and his aspirations of becoming a doctor.
Instead, he got a job in 1928 at the plant moving vehicle bodies. The hard work often caused his feet to bleed.
“I used to go home at night, and … my mother used to cry and say that people should not have to do those things. If they wouldn't let you do them to an animal, why could you do it to people?
“The next day, I had to get my feet in shape so I could work, or I didn't have a job … (That) was just more physical output than a person should have to expend for a paycheck.”
Osmond recalled being fired in 1934 or 1935 for union activities after one of the company’s “stool pigeons” turned him in. He was rehired after a labor board intervened.
Janesville workers weren’t too familiar with unions until after the World’s Fair, where GM set up a demonstration plant after temporarily closing the one here.
“We were working on the ’34 model—they skipped the 1933 model entirely—and we were working on the ’34 model when we went back to work. These people had come back from the World's Fair in Chicago, and they had learned what you can gain with good unions down there.”
-- John Wesley Van Horn recalls tack spitting and how the practice damaged the teeth of workers who used hammer and tacks to fasten upholstery in vehicles.
“Oh, we’d dump a handful in like that and throw it in our mouth. And then some of us chewed tobacco to make them slip out easier. That’s what we’d call tack spitting.
“What bugged us the most is the speed of the lines. We didn’t even have time to go to the toilets. It was just that old speed all day long. Unless you got a gap in the line, you know, you just didn’t get a break. … They drove us just like slaves, you know. If you complained, they’d say, ‘Well look out in the clock room. The clock room’s full of men. If you don’t like it, just say so, and we’ll replace you.’
“If you just didn’t happen to look right at the boss or say the wrong thing to the boss, why he’d fire you. I mean, you was out. There was no recourse at that time. They didn’t recognize seniority. There was no chance for promotion, none whatsoever unless you bought your boss a lot of beer or loaned him a lot of money or socialized with him on the outside, you know, played golf or something like that.”
-- Lou Adkins was asked about the pressure applied to those reluctant to join the union.
“Oh, different individuals did different things. You might have stole their tools. You might have walked on them. You give the cold treatment and didn’t speak to them or talk with them or nothing, just isolate them … Different people did different things in different locations in the plant.
“Sure, the Pinkerton people were in here. They (the management) give them oilers jobs with nothing to do and just go around and prime people, find out what they could, when they could, where they could. … Being rats, what the hell, you're bound to smell them.”
He told of a stampede of Ringling Brothers Circus elephants sometime in the late 1930s.
The AFL was trying to organize the stagehands, and the circus was hiring scabs and strikebreakers, he recalled.
“I bet there was 10, 15,000 people up on the streets, and I don't think they had three, four people going to the show … I don't know how it got so widely publicized that there was going to be a demonstration, but we sure put on a picket line. That was unification.
“I was talking to the sheriff and the chief of police over by a telephone pole ... We was trying to convince them they better get these guys to fold up and get out of town to avoid any discussion. And about that time, everybody started to run and looked up and, my God, here was a herd of elephants being prodded, and they went right through everybody. I crawled on my hands and knees over to some people's porch to avoid it.
“But they got out of town before they could get the warrants put into effect, and so that was the end of it.”
-- John Scott, one of the first black General Motors workers when he was hired in 1961, talked about riding the rails during the Depression in 1929 and his adventures in the hobo jungles and with the “railroad dicks.”
His quest to find a job to send money back to his parents was unsuccessful. He returned home to Janesville two years later.
And as we lived in Highway 51, just as I came around a little curve there, I saw my father sitting on the front porch, and he looked up and he saw me coming. … I was barefoot, and it was a gravel road, and my feet were awfully sore. And I remember so well when I walked up to the porch he was glad to see me, and I was glad to see him.
“He said, ‘John,’ he said, ‘there’s a pot of beans in there on the stove,’ he said, ‘go in there and eat.’ Well, that's just about all we did have back in those days to eat was beans and rice, cornmeal, regardless of whether you were white or black or Indians. I came back out on the porch, and I sit and talked with him. And I was just so tired, and all of a sudden I just laid back on the porch and went to sleep to get some rest.
“I was just tired.”
Labor interviews available online
Seventy-two hours of recollections by a dozen retired Janesville workers are now available on the Hedberg Public Library’s website.
The interviews focus on labor in the first half of the 20th Century here. But the memories are not all about work, and that’s part of their charm.
Clement Imhoff conducted the interviews in 1976-77 as part of a bicentennial project conceived by Rock County Historical Society Director Richard Hartung. Imhoff did an impressive job of pulling every detail he could from the men, who ranged in age from late 50s to 80s.
The library received copies of the tape and circulated them on audiocassettes. In 2004, staff began digitizing the tapes and had them transcribed so patrons can hear and read the interviews. They now are available online, along with summaries of the interviews. Patrons also can search them by keyword. Staff is creating a book that can be checked out.
The $7,000 cost was paid for through the Hedberg Public Library Foundation, UAW Local 95, Commercial Bank of Janesville and Amy Dooley, granddaughter of one of the men interviewed. The Janesville Bicentennial Heritage Committee initially sponsored the project.
“It’s a cool thing because it forever preserves a snapshot of Janesville and Rock County’s history,” said Sue Braden, a reference librarian involved in the project.
“Not only do the men interviewed talk about their work, but they talk about where they were born, where they grew up, what their social life was like. It gives a snapshot of roughly the first 50 60 years of the 20th Century of life in the Janesville-Rock County area.
“The more you listen, the more you want to hear.”
Braden received a Governor’s Archives Award for archival innovation this year for her work. The award recognizes those who find new ways to bring historical records to new audiences.
“We want to preserve that legacy of General Motors in Janesville,” Braden said. “We just think it is an important part of our history, and we want to make it more accessible for people to enjoy and learn from.”
Interviews with the following men are featured on the Hedberg Public Library’s website. They are:
-- Eugene Osmond was born in Janesville in 1908, one of 14 children. He worked for Janesville Sand & Gravel at age 13 before working 40 years at the Chevrolet plant. He participated in the 1937 sit-down strike, was one of the earliest members of the United Auto Workers and served as a trustee.
-- Ralph Hilkin worked for Fisher Auto Body, primarily in the seat cushion area. He was also involved in the 1937 sit-down strike and discusses the roles of Henry Traxler and Mayor Lustig. He joined the Janesville Fire Department after World War II and played a key role in the firefighters association.
-- Don Dooley worked for 42 years at the plant, mostly in the paint department. He was a past president of UAW Local 95.
-- Harry Johnson began at the plant in 1923 in the body drop department, worked with the GM World’s Fair exhibit in 1933 and appears to be the first union member in the “Chevy” side of the Janesville plant.
-- Lou Adkins came to Janesville in 1920 to work at the Samson Tractor Company before it became General Motors, then joined Fisher Body. An original Local 95 organizer, he served on the shop committee and as president of the joint Local 95-Local 121 union during World War II. He recalls the first union meeting at Lien’s service station.
-- Hugo Preuss did apprentice work for the Janesville Electric Company and worked on the Samson Tractor plant. He joined the Janesville local of the IBEW union and discusses the nature of early electrical work.
-- James V. (Jack) Johnston held a variety of jobs with Fisher Auto Body. He was an early member of the union and served as vice-president during the union’s formative years.
-- John S. Scott Sr. moved to Janesville in 1948 and was employed by the railroad. In 1961, he became one of the first black employees for GM in Janesville. He rode the rails as a hobo in his youth during the Depression.
-- Glenn Swinbank sat in on the sessions and comments on occasion. He served as recording secretary of UAW Local 121 during the 1930s. His wife sat in on the interview and comments on occasion.
-- James Wells worked briefly as a timekeeper at GM, then began work at Parker Pen in 1941 making delayed-action fuses during World War II. He talks about the development of the Teamsters in Janesville during the 1930s.
-- John Wesley Van Horn worked as a tack spitter at Fisher for a time and was a UAW field representative. He discusses the 1937 strike and Leon Feingold as the UAW’s attorney.
-- Gerald H. Litney was raised in the Fourth Ward’s heavily Irish neighborhood and worked for several local businesses before the Rock River Woolen Mill in the 1920s. He served as president for the textile workers union.