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Janesville, once GM’s oldest operating plant, to be demolished a year short of its centennial

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Photo by Cliff.

Following a decade of inactivity and a multi-million-dollar sale, the former GM assembly plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, which once employed as many as 7,000 workers, will soon be reduced to rubble to ease the redevelopment of the 300-acre site.

If the plant can owe its existence to any one individual, that would be James A. Craig. In the 1910s, Craig worked for the Janesville Machinery Company, which built farming implements in the southern Wisconsin city. Craig somehow got wind of GM’s plan to enter the farm tractor business to compete against the Fordson and convinced William Durant to allow Janesville Machinery to manage that business for GM. In true Durant fashion, he not only bought Janesville Machinery for $1 million in 1918, he also bought the Stockton, California-based Samson Sieve-Grip Tractor Company, moved the latter to Wisconsin, merged the two companies under the Samson name, and built a grand new factory for the division.

Tractors, a handful of trucks, and the unique Model D Iron Horse followed, but Samson could never come close to Ford’s market share. Lawrence Gustin, in his book “Billy Durant: Creator of General Motors,” also pointed out that a looming recession caused a slump in farm prices and thus spelled doom for Samson; Gustin quoted Pierre du Pont’s estimate that the tractor business cost GM a total of $33 million by the time the company pulled the plug on Samson in 1923.

It wasn’t all for naught, though. Chevrolet, in the middle of a period of massive growth, already had assembly plants in Flint, Tarrytown, St. Louis, Oakland, and Canada, and could use a few more for both its car and truck lines. So as Samson production ended at Janesville, Chevrolet production started. (The division also added factories in Buffalo and Norwood, Ohio, that year.)

A Fisher Body plant accompanied the Janesville plant at about the same time, and aside from a year during the Depression and the World War II years – when Oldsmobile operated the plant and produced artillery shells – production continued into the 21st Century. In about 1981, Janesville switched from full-size cars to J-chassis compacts, and then in the late 1980s the plant switched from building pickups to building full-size SUVs and medium-duty trucks.

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Only the SUVs and a handful of medium-duty Isuzus were rolling down the Janesville assembly lines by 2008, though with rising gas prices curtailing sales of full-size SUVs and GM sliding into bankruptcy, GM CEO Rick Wagoner announced that June that the Janesville plant would close. The SUV assembly line wound down that December and the Isuzu line in April of 2009.

Unlike other former GM plants that were offloaded during the company’s 2009 bankruptcy, the Janesville plant went on standby status and remained GM property, according to The Detroit Bureau. Not until January 2016, when, as part of GM’s renegotiated contract with the United Auto Workers the UAW agreed to allow GM to sell the plant, did the plant go off standby status and on the market. It then remained on the market until December of last year, when Commercial Development Company of St. Louis bought the 4.8-million-square-foot plant and the 265-acre property it sat on for $9.6 million.

As Commercial Development Company CEO Randall Jostes noted in a press conference shortly after the purchase, the new owners intend to raze most or all of the factory to clear the way for redeveloping the site.

“We believe we’ve looked at every possibility of preserving some of the structure, but it doesn’t look like that’s possible. We haven’t ruled it out completely. So it looks like we’re going to have to demolish the 4-million-square-foot facility,” Jostes said.

The Detroit Bureau reported this week that demolition equipment has moved onto the site.