Wisconsin Hometown Stories: Janesville, a new documentary airing at 8 p.m. Monday, May 8 on Wisconsin Public Television (WPT) and WMVS/TV in the Milwaukee viewing area, takes an intriguing look at the evolution of a city rich in history and culture. Janesville, like each of the towns to be profiled in the brand-new Wisconsin Hometown Stories series, offers an integral piece in connecting Wisconsin's past to its present. (View a six-minute program clip.)
Through a partnership with the Wisconsin Historical Society, WPT is producing the Wisconsin Hometown Stories series with future plans to profile other state cities. Each program is a celebration of the evolution of a town, its residents and their stories. The series carries on WPT's tradition of producing outstanding Wisconsin history programs such as Wisconsin Stories and Wisconsin World War II Stories.
Wisconsin Hometown Stories: Janesville, produced by WPT's David Hestad, follows the development of Janesville from its early days as a growing community on the Rock River to the present. Archival images and interviews offer insights into the development of the city's politics, manufacturing, entrepreneurship and architecture.
It was after the Black Hawk War of 1832, when Native Americans were forced to move westward, that settlers from the East began to stake their claims on the fertile prairie land of the Rock River Valley.
Many of the first settlers were idealists from New England's "burned over area," a region heavily evangelized during the religious revival movement of the early 1800s. Dictated by social conscience, they opposed slavery, and supported temperance and women's rights.
A passion for these issues continued to shape the community that supported the Civil War and welcomed orator and abolition activist Frederick Douglass as well as Abraham Lincoln. When the issues of temperance and suffrage came to the political forefront in the late 1800s, Janesville's Frances Willard, a schoolteacher, and Lavinia Goodell, a lawyer, led the movement pushing for local and national reform.
During its pioneer years, Janesville became a hub for agriculture. In 1843, A. Hyatt Smith, who was elected the city's first mayor, built a dam to harness waterpower from the Rock River. Within a few years, Smith had built the "big mill" where farmers from surrounding areas brought their wheat to be ground into flour.
While farm services supplied work for most of the community, Janesville also had its share of independent thinkers who found new ways to prosper.
In 1890, George Stafford Parker patented his first fountain pen. The "Lucky Curve" feed pen drew excess ink back into the body when the pen was not in use. The Parker Pen Co. was one of Wisconsin's first nationally known companies and by 1908 was the largest pen-manufacturing company in the world.
Entrepreneurship continued to make its mark in the 1900s with Carrie Jacobs Bond, who turned her talent into a career after being widowed. Her parlor songs became so popular that by 1910 Jacobs Bond was the first woman composer to earn $1 million. She also was the first woman to establish a music-publishing business in America. Her most recognized composition is "I Love You Truly."
As in many Wisconsin communities based on an agricultural economy, several small clothing mills sprang up during the 1920s. Locals had the convenience of purchasing textiles and clothing manufactured right in Janesville, and the mills provided jobs for women.
One of the largest companies to provide diverse employment came to Janesville in 1918-19 when General Motors Corp. (GM) purchased the Janesville Machine Co. and also moved the Samson Tractor factory to the city. Eventually GM began to build Chevrolet automobiles and bodies for other vehicles. While GM provided more jobs, wages were low.
Today, Janesville is a modern communitya shopping mall and newer homes have sprung up east of the downtown areabut a reverence for its history can be seen in the restoration of many of the city's early buildings and homes.
The Wisconsin Stories Web site offers a comprehensive resource for Wisconsin Hometown Stories: Janesville.
Wisconsin Hometown Stories is produced as a partnership of WPT and the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Principal funders for Wisconsin Hometown Stories: Janesville include Bliss Communications and the Janesville Gazette, the Alliant Energy Foundation and Friends of WHA-TV. Additional funders include J.P. Cullen & Sons Inc., the George K. Tallman Trust, The Janesville Foundation and The Rath Foundation.
Archival material was provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society, the Rock County Historical Society, the Hedberg Library and Janesville families. WPT is a service of the Educational Communications Board and the University of Wisconsin-Extension.
WPT celebrates and connects the people of Wisconsin through programming like Wisconsin Hometown Stories on WHA-TV/Madison, WPNE-TV/Green Bay, WHLA-TV/La Crosse, WHRM-TV/Wausau, WLEF-TV/Park Falls and WHWC-TV/Menomonie-Eau Claire.