Janesville, City on the Rock

by Michael J. Goc
Michael J. Goc is the author/editor of more than seventy books on Wisconsin history, eight of which have received Awards of Merit from the Wisconsin Historical Society. He is the author of numerous historical articles for the print, radio and electronic media. His company, the New Past Press is dedicated to producing fine, limited edition history books. It is the largest publishing company in Friendship, Wis.


Janesville owes its existence to its location at a waterpower site in the midst of one of the richest agricultural regions in North America. The nine-foot fall of the Rock River through the city gave Janesville's founders the power to run the mills that established an industrial and commercial base for the community.

Just as important as the water in the Rock River was the wealth of the farmland on its banks. On the northern edge of the great Midwestern tall grass prairie, Rock County has been one of Wisconsin's leading agricultural producers since settlement. One pioneer described the Rock Prairie without “the mark of the plow” in 1836 as “the paradise of the West.” So attractive was its soil that between 1840 and 1850, county population grew from about 1,700 to nearly 21,000. It was not exactly the California gold rush, but similar in that newcomers flocked to the county to exploit the natural wealth of its soil.

A good share of the prairie's original wealth was transferred to Janesville in return for the services its people supplied to the farmers. First, they milled, bought, sold and shipped prairie wheat. They imported and sold manufactured goods to the farmers and provided credit, legal, educational, entertainment, cultural and information services. Janesville the industrial city was also Janesville the farm service city and the first service delivered was at the grain mills on the Rock. It is no accident that the first Wisconsin state fair was held in Janesville in 1851. It was the ideal place to exhibit the agricultural prowess and promise of the state, much of which came from Rock County.

The tie to the fertile ground around Janesville predates settlement, of course. The Rock River Valley was home to mound builders who first shaped the earth into animal effigies and other forms before the Christian era. Their presence further illustrates the natural wealth of the region. People who are living a hand-to-mouth existence are not able to take time away from subsistence labor to erect monuments, be they stone temples in Mexico or turtle mounds in the Rock Valley--nor are they likely to have the cultural motivations to build for reasons other than shelter.

Many regarded Sauk Chief Black Hawk's resistence to Yankee settlement as heroic.By the time Europeans arrived in Wisconsin, the mound builders were long gone and the people usually identified as their successors were on the verge of dying out. The upheavals of the fur trade era were a demographic disaster for the Ho-Chunk, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Sauk, Fox and other tribes who lived in Southern Wisconsin prior to settlement. Their significance to Janesville lies in the cession of their land at several treaty sessions dating back as early as 1804, thereby allowing non-Indian Americans to claim the ground. The Ho-Chunk signed off in 1829 and 1832. The Sauk and Fox signed away their rights to the Rock River Valley in 1804, but a faction of these tribes, led by the Sauk leader Black Sparrow Hawk, refused to accept the agreement. In 1832, when settlers and soldiers arrived at Black Hawk's village at the mouth of Rock River in Illinois in order to compel the Indians to move across the Mississippi, Black Hawk resisted.

Several "firsters" (as in "first" to settle) staked claims in what became Janesville and a handful were already onsite when Henry Janes hiked west across the prairie from Racine in the winter of 1835-1836. He scouted up and down the river valley from Lake Kegonsa to Beloit and west into the lead mining region, before claiming a quarter section, 160 acres, on the river in what became the east side of Janesville. He hired two frontiersmen to build him a log cabin and headed back to Racine where he stayed until May, when he and his family returned and moved into their new home. Janes drew up a plat map and began to sell city lots, even though his own claim to the land had yet to be accepted by the federal government.Though called a war, the Black Hawk affair was actually the retreat of the Indians up the Rock and then west across Wisconsin and their pursuit by United States, Illinois and Michigan/Wisconsin soldiers and volunteers, including the young Abe Lincoln. One of the Indian camp sites was at Janesville. The pursuit of Black Hawk's band inevitably ended badly for the Indians, as the soldiers caught up with them as they attempted to cross the Mississippi near Bad Axe in Vernon County. In addition to removing the Indians who might have been an obstacle to settlement, the Black Hawk War introduced southern Wisconsin to the rest of the United States. In 1833, the southern tier of counties was surveyed and the most opportunistic denizens of the frontier began to scout the territory.

United States mail service also began that year, which meant the village had to be officially christened. Janes later wrote that he asked the postmaster general to name the place Black Hawk, in honor of the Sauk chief. The postmaster general said that title was already taken and decreed that the post office, and therefore the village, would be known as Janesville.The Wisconsin territorial legislature organized Rock County that year and Janes immediately began to lobby the lawmakers for an exclusive charter to run a ferry across the Rock and to name the village he platted as the county seat. County seat politicking on the frontier, with rival villages vying to get a leg up on their neighbors, was always contentious and occasionally violent. Herein lies the root of Janesville's rivalry with Beloit, which actually stood little chance of becoming the capital because it was on the county border, and the state legislature almost always awarded the prize to a centrally-located community. Such was the case in Rock County where, in 1837, an unnamed site fitting the legal description of Janes' plat was designated the county seat.

Henry Janes was one of the village's first settlers. Janes later wrote that he asked the postmaster general to name the place Black Hawk, in honor of the Sauk chief.In 1843, A. Hyatt Smith, a well-fixed and accomplished man of affairs public and private, organized a company that obtained a legislative charter to build a dam across the Rock and develop the water power. Two years later, Smith and another set of partners started building "the big mill" on Milwaukee street. When it began operations in 1847, the big mill stood four stories high, and had six "run" of stone to process wheat into fine flour. On opening day, farmers brought grain from as far as fifty miles north and half the city's people turned out to see the turning stones grind wheat into flour.

In 1853, the city government was incorporated, Hyatt Smith was elected its first mayor and Janesville had a population of 4,800. Along the Rock stood four flouring mills, three sawmills, one woolen mill, plus mills to process cement and plaster, work stone and wood. All this and the water power was "only partially developed." In addition, federal surveyors had identified the Rock as one of three rivers in Wisconsin and Illinois that could be "improved" to provide a canal connecting Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River. However, technology was already making canals obsolete, as evidenced in Janesville. One railroad was already in town, another was on its way, and so was Janesville.

A Working Town

In the opening decades of the 20th century, Wisconsin's industrial economy shifted from its pioneering base in mining, logging and agriculture to more modern, value-added manufacturing. Logging companies became paper makers, wagon makers became auto builders and so on.

In 1918-'19, General Motors came to Janesville, first by purchasing J.A. Craig’s Janesville Machine Company, then by moving the Samson Tractor factory to the city. After making trucks and tractors for a few years, GM concentrated its Janesville operations on Chevrolet autos and bodies for other vehicles. During World War II, the plants were refitted to make artillery shells and produced about sixteen million by war's end. Peace brought a conversion back to Chevy cars that lasted until 1983, followed by pick up trucks.

Welder on truck car assembly line, Chevrolet plant, late 1940's.As early as 1925, GM employed about 2600 men and women, or about sixty percent of Janesville's full time industrial work force of 4400. City population hit 13,000 in the 1890s and stayed there until World War I, then doubled to 26,000 between 1918 and 1927. The impact of General Motors on the growth of the city cannot be overestimated, but just having GM in town did not automatically make the good times roll.

If Janesville was not necessarily heaven for working people in the relatively prosperous 1920s, it was certainly less so in the 1930s. For example, the GM plant was shuttered in 1933 and 1934. When it reopened, the economy was still shaky and remained shaky until the onset of World War II, a fact which only adds luster to the courageous participation of Janesville's autoworkers in the successful union recognition sit-down strikes of 1937. As a result of the UAW victory, in the post-World War II years Janesville's autoworkers were among the elite of American blue collar workers. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century a Janesville high school graduate working for a few years at GM could expect to be paid as much as or more than most of his teachers and many other professionals. Janesville enjoyed the golden age of the American blue collar middle class--1950s-1970s--and has, of course, been dealing with its decline since the 1980s.While GM brought a lot of jobs to the Janesville in the 1920s, the majority were low wage, paying forty-fifty cents per hour.

A 1925 study conducted for a "Better Cities Contest," and therefore not likely to stress negative findings, reported that nearly ten percent of working families in Janesville were not earning enough to provide a minimum level of food, clothing and shelter. Working families that were able to make ends meet, did so because they had more than one member working outside the home. Fathers may have been the leading breadwinners, but mothers, and certainly teenage sons and daughters, worked outside the home and helped support their families. Of Janesville's 4,400 full time industrial workers in 1925, more than 1,000 were women, almost half of whom worked at Parker Pen. Note that these were industrial workers. Women also worked in familiar female jobs as teachers, nurses and office clerks while both women and teenagers worked as retail clerks, receptionists, delivery people, and go-fers in workshops and commercial operations. The two or three paycheck family was common in the working class decades before it made its well-publicized appearance in the middle class of the 1970s.

The golden age of the autoworker is a distinctive historical fact of Janesville. While J.A. Craig and other GM managers helped create the golden age, so did Janesville's UAW leader Elmer Yanney and the men he led in the sit down in 1937.

The other Janesville industrial story is that of Parker Pen. It has all the elements of an old-fashioned American success story. A young man disregards his family's advice to follow a seemingly secure career path as a telegrapher and strikes out on his own. Parker develops a practical and attractive fountain pen and, more importantly, takes advantage of modern marketing and advertising know-how to build a successful company. The Parker Lucky Curve, Duofold, Vacumatic and 51 pens wrote well, looked stylish and made Parker Pen one of Wisconsin's first internationally-known companies.

Celebrities and Heroes

Rhoda Lavinia Goodell fought for the right to practice law before the Supreme Court.Rhoda Lavinia Goodell
Born and educated in New York, Goodell moved with her parents to Janesville in 1871. She worked long and hard to obtain legal training in Janesville and was allowed to practice in Rock County in 1874. Denied the privilege to practice before the state supreme court, she persuaded the legislature to change the law and was admitted to those august chambers in June 1879.
Eleven months later, at age 40, she died. Goodell's story reveals much about the status of women in the latter half of the 1800s, but also how a woman of determination and ability could alter that status. A York Stater, she had a leg up on the social pecking order in her time and place, but only if she remained in her place as dictated by that order. However, she fought and won a good fight. Tragically, illness soon denied her the fruits of that victory.
Frances Willard
Frances Willard's work as an educator and suffragist had a profound effect on how women exercised politcal power.Born in New York in 1839, Willard came to a farm near Janesville with her family in 1846. She did not live in Janesville. She attended a one-room rural school and later college in Milwaukee and Evanston Illinois, returning home to teach the summer session at what became known as the Willard School. In 1859, she and her family moved to Evanston and returned to the Janesville area only to visit. In 1873, she became Dean of Women at Northwestern and in 1874, corresponding secretary of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. President of the WCTU in 1883, she made it into an international organization opposing the abuse of alcohol and in favor of equal rights, especially suffrage, for women. 
She did not live to see the success of both her causes in constitutional amendments adopted in 1919 and 1920.
She spent little time in Janesville, returning once for a farewell address in January 1898, one month prior to her death. The Rock County WCTU acquired the Willard school house and dedicated it to the her memory in 1911. It now rests at the Rock County Fairgrounds in Janesville. Willard is commemorated in Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol, her figure place there by the state of Illinois, where she lived most of her life.
Carrie Jacobs Bond
Composer Carrie Jacobs Bond was an astute business person who retained her rights, publishing and selling her music through her own company.Carrie Jacobs Bond was born in Janesville in 1862 and she lived in the city for the first twenty-five or so years of her life. A prodigy at the piano, she gained fame in Janesville as the four-year old who could pick out any tune after hearing it only once. In another place and time she probably would have received formal musical training and pursued a career as a performer and composer. Instead she experienced one unhappy marriage, a happy marriage that ended in the early death of her husband, a son for whom she was the sole means of support, and--doubly tragic for a pianist--chronic rheumatism that periodically disabled her.
She never stopped playing and composing music and, after her husband died in 1894, she did what many other Midwesterners seeking to make their way in world at time did. She moved to Chicago where, through a combination of pluck, luck and real ability, she achieved success as a songwriter. By 1910, she was billed as the first woman composer to earn $1 million (about $20 million today).
Bond achieved success in the heyday of the parlor piano, for which her compositions were eminently suited. They were relatively easy to play, pleasantly singable and expressed socially acceptable and popular sentiments. She was also an astute business person. The story of the struggling artist who sells rights to her work to an unscrupulous agent or producer is well-known. Bond retained her rights, published and sold her music through her own company. She also apparently made fair deals with the producers who first recorded her music. The new technology enabled her to resell the old songs in new formats, from wax cylinders and piano rolls to 78rpm discs. So Bond should be recognized not only as an accomplished artist, but as an successful arts business person too.
Her most popular tune was A Perfect Day, published in 1909, while her most-enduring is I Love You Truly, which was a staple at wedding receptions for most of the 20th century and is still heard at golden anniversary parties today, and not just in Janesville. Despite her rheumatism, Bond herself lived to age 84. She died in 1946.

Tallman & Lincoln

William Tallman was an early supporter of the Republican Party and helped lay the groundwork for Rock County's support of the Union during the Civil War.An early convert to the Republican Party, Tallman worked to elect John Fremont president in 1856 and later took note of the party's nominee for the Illinois United States Senate seat in 1858, Abraham Lincoln. Although he lost the '58 race to Stephen Douglas, Lincoln attracted enough attention to make himself a prospect for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. He set out on the campaign trail as a public speaker and was invited to address his fellow Republicans in Beloit in October, 1859. Tallman was in the audience and he persuaded Lincoln to leave Beloit and give another speech in Janesville the next day.William Morrison Tallman was the quintessential pioneer in a frock coat. In 1848, two years before coming to Janesville from New York City, he acquired thousands of acres of fertile farmland in southern Wisconsin, which he resold to actual farmers at a handsome profit. He moved to Janesville and built the Italian villa style home that still stands today. It is a splendid example of the finest in residential architecture and design in 1850’s America.

Lincoln then spent the night at the Tallman mansion, which has ever since enabled Janesvillers to proclaim, "Lincoln slept here." His speeches must have been good. Lincoln carried Rock County and Wisconsin by a good margin in the election of 1860 and the locals enthusiastically supported his call to arms in 1861.

Frederick Douglass, the Black abolitionist, also spoke in Janesville. In February, 1859, he so impressed his listeners that he "gave new proof that a white skin does not monopolize all the knowledge in existence." Douglass was, of course, a talented and famed orator, much better-known throughout the United States than Lincoln in 1859.

Douglass, Lincoln and Tallman laid the groundwork for Rocky County’s dedication to the preservation of the Union during the Civil War. In proportion to its population Rock County sent more men into the Union army than any other county in Wisconsin. Twenty five companies were composed largely of Rock County men who served in twenty-three Wisconsin regiments, most notably the three Wisconsin regiments that were part of the justly famous Iron Brigade.

Henry Palmer, “The Fighting Surgeon”

Dr. Henry Palmer was a brilliant war-time surgeon and hospital administrator.An excellent administrator as well as a clinician, Palmer reduced the mortality rate at York to two percent of all patients admitted. He complied this enviable record at a time when many a military hospital was no more than a temporary halting place for men waiting to die.Among the twenty-eight hundred Rock County men who volunteered for the Civil War was Janesville surgeon Henry Palmer. After distinguishing himself as chief surgeon of the Seventh Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry and of the Iron Brigade, Palmer received a presidential appointment as superintendent of the military hospitals at York, Pennsylvania. With 16,000 wounded soldiers to care for, York was not only the largest military hospital complex in the United States, it was also one of the largest health care facilities in the world.

He became known as “The Fighting Surgeon” when he armed convalescent patients and civilians of York and led their resistance to Confederate raiding parties on at least two occasions. His greatest achievement was not a leader in combat but as extraordinarily competent administrator who made sure that the thousands of men entrusted to him received the best hospital care the nation could provide.

After the war he returned to Janesville, resumed his practice and established more than one hospital in the city. He also entered politics, was elected mayor and appointed Surgeon General of Wisconsin.

The Janesville 99

They started their military careers as the ninety-nine men of the Tank Company of the 32nd Division of the Wisconsin National Guard. Activated for duty prior to American entry into World War two, they became Company A of the 192nd Tank Battalion. In the fall of 1941, they were sent to the Phillippine Islands and were present when Japanese forces invaded on December 8, 1941. They took part in the valiant but unsuccessful American defense of the islands and surrendered to the Japanese in April 1942. Along with 75,000 other American and Filipine troops they were subjected to the atrocities of the seventy-five mile trek to prison camp known as the Bataan Death March.

One of the Janesville 99 died on the march, and thirteen more succumbed to the tortuous conditions of the prison camp. The survivors endured the thirst, starvation and disease at the camp as well as the brutality of their captors for over two years. In the fall of 1944, threatened with the return of the Americans led by General Douglas MacArthur, the Japanese herded the surviving prisoners into ships for transfer to other camps. Onboard the “hell-ships” food and water were inadequate and space was so tight the prisoners could neither sit nor lie down. The voyage north took weeks, with at least one of the unmarked prison transports carrying ten of the Janesville 99 torpedoed and sunk by the U.S. Navy.

Upon arrival in Japan, the prisoners went back into camp, where more of them died of malnutrition, disease and brutal treatment. Upon Japan’s surrender in August, 1945, the thirty-five survivors of the Janesville 99 were liberated and soon returned home. The cruelty of their treatment was rivaled only by the heroism they summoned forth to survive and resume life again.


For most of its history, Janesville has been a city of neighborhoods identified by ethnic group, economic class, religious affiliation, the local school, place of employment, a park or a geographical feature like the Rock River. Although identified in many ways, the size of a neighborhood was usually defined by the distance people could comfortably walk to and from its center. For example, the bounds of Janesville's first "Irish neighborhood" were set by the distance parishioners were willing to walk to attend services and school at St. Patrick's church.

Each neighborhood also had its street corner commercial center. The corner grocery sold staples and perishables that had to be purchased daily because home refrigeration was limited or non-existent and also because people were used to consuming fresh food, or at least food fresh from the store. The corner tavern was not just a place to consume alcohol. It provided its mostly male clientele with a place to gather away from small, crowded homes. Many taverns sponsored sports teams and had bowling alleys, horse shoe pits and picnic groves on the premises. They had halls attached or upstairs that were used for club and organization meetings, or for weddings and other parties. The tavern was also headquarters for local politicians, with the owner often holding political office or deciding who did. Finally, tavern keepers also acted as bankers of last resort for low income people who needed credit but had little hope of obtaining it from a conventional bank. Although not as common as grocery stores and taverns, corner bakeries and butcher shops were also present in the neighborhoods, as were small clothing stores and shoe repair shops.

Space above the stores was rented out to medical doctors, dentists, optometrists, lawyers, music teachers and other professionals.For most of its history, Janesville has been a city of neighborhoods identified by ethnic group, economic class, religious affiliation, the local school, place of employment, a park or a geographical feature like the Rock River. Although identified in many ways, the size of a neighborhood was usually defined by the distance people could comfortably walk to and from its center. For example, the bounds of Janesville's first "Irish neighborhood" were set by the distance parishioners were willing to walk to attend services and school at St. Patrick's church.

The downtown business district centered on Milwaukee and Main Street was the place just about everyone visited to shop, socialize and recreate. Here were the hotels that welcomed commercial travelers, politicians and visitors to the city. Here also were the large department stores, specialty shops and professional offices that helped to create and urban atmosphere what was a small city. On Saturday night stores stayed open late for the farm trade. Whole families from the countryside came downtown to window shop, dine out, attend a live show or movie or just hang out on the sidewalk with friends and family.

For nearly a century the Myers Theater was the focal point for entertainment downtown. Built as the Myers Opera House in 1870, and rebuilt as the Myers Grand Opera House after a fire in 1891, the theater featured local talent and nationally known entertainers. Lecturers, musical shows, animal acts, singers, jugglers and acrobats all played the Myers. When motion pictures became popular in the 1920s the Myers was remodeled into a “Moorish” style movie palace where the feature films of Hollywood’s golden age made their Janesville debut.

The Myers continued to host live shows and movies until the 1970s. In the years after World War II, Janesville, like other American cities large and small, sprawled well beyond its official boundaries. The traditional neighborhoods of the city, defined by the distance a person could walk melded into a larger suburban-style community defined by the ever expanding perimeter within which people were willing drive. The downtown shopping district was replaced by the suburban mall. Symbolic of the process, the wrecking ball took the century-old Myers Theater in 1977. 

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