Rock County Historical Society debuts exhibit highlighting history of Janesville’s GM plant, auto industry

JANESVILLE, Wis. — The Rock County Historical Society on Wednesday debuted an exhibit highlighting the shuttered Janesville General Motors plant and the history of the city’s auto industry.

The Rock County Legacies exhibit focuses on the history of those who worked for General Motors, JATCO, Fisher Body and the UAW in Janesville.

GM’s history in Janesville dates back to 1918, when the company branched out into farm vehicles by buying the Samson Tractor Co. Within 12 months after the purchase, nearly 150 tractors per day were rolling off the production line.

Car production at the Janesville plant began in 1923, but the Great Depression shuttered the plant from 1932 to 1934. The plant made 16 million 105 mm artillery shells during World War II, then returned to automotive production after the war.

The Janesville GM plant ceased all production in April 2009, and demolition at the site began in 2018.

Accompanied by the 100 millionth General Motors car ever built, which was built in Janesville, the town’s deep vehicle production roots were on center stage.

Emotions ran high during the event, as many former plant workers relived their version of the American dream.

Bob Ebert began working at Janesville’s GM plant in 1984, and remained there until the plant closed in 2009.

Originally opened in 1919, it was the oldest operating GM plant when it was largely idled. Ebert has carried his family legacy on through car shows since the plant’s closure.

“Chevy runs deep — there’s that commercial. In my family it does,” he said.

When speaking of the car shows, Ebert said he committed to doing them for his grandfather.

“I’m proud to be here today, I’m happy today, I’m not gonna cry today. Today is a happy day, we’re celebrating our memories,” he said. “My grandfather was a sit-down striker, he actually helped build the plant and he was one of the sit-down strikers, so there’s a lot of history in my family, and I’m proud to carry that legacy on.”

The exhibit will be open Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the Rock County Historical Society Visitor and Museum Center.

Visitors will have until the end of September 2023 to check out the exhibit.