MILTON, Wis. — Dona Dutcher's office at Blackhawk Community Credit Union is a small glimpse into bold plans to remember the history of auto-making in Rock County.
She has piles of photographs, hubcaps and a mannequin wearing a pair of coveralls with employee number 40-19-10414.
There are bricks from the General Motors Assembly smokestack, a place setting from the executive dining room, a nameplate from a 307 Chevrolet and United Auto Workers Local 95 campaign buttons touting Jim "Boz" Bosben, Terry Meyer, Mike Sheridan and Archie Bailey.
In the basement of the credit union, two separate rooms, one of them a vault, hold frayed and fragile blueprints of GM buildings, reports from a transportation company GM used to haul vehicles from the plant to dealers, postcards, tools and Janesville Gazette newspapers documenting the strike of 1937.
"I've got a lot of stuff, as you can see," Dutcher recently told the Wisconsin State Journal.
And it's only a fraction of her collection.
Dutcher has other storage facilities in Milton, Janesville and Beloit that hold larger items such as industrial fans, three-wheeled bikes used to get around the plant, handrails, carts, welding equipment and cabinets full of tools. She even has lights from the parking lot, multiple fire hydrants and three flagpoles.
And sometime in 2021 the artifacts will come under one roof in downtown Janesville.
That's where the credit union will open a Legacy Center in the former First National Bank building that was constructed in 1913 at the corner of Main and River streets.
Dutcher, a manager of the credit union's Milton branch — and whose husband, Brad Dutcher, started working at GM in 1986 and is a former president of UAW Local 95 — has worked for the credit union since 2002 and doesn't consider the Legacy Center a museum. Instead, it will be more interactive. Beyond the exhibits, it will include educational programs and research facilities and be a place for reflection and remembrance of an industry that touched nearly every aspect of Janesville and provided good-paying jobs to generations of families.
"GM was just so connected to the veins of this community," Dona Dutcher said.
The need for a place to take in the history of Rock County auto-making became apparent after years of hearing from former employees, and after 1,200 workers there lost their jobs when production of Chevrolet Suburban and Tahoe and GMC Yukon sport utility vehicles ended just before Christmas 2008. The Isuzu truck line closed the following April, ending the jobs of the remaining 110 employees. Another 800 or so employees of a long list of GM suppliers and contracted transport companies also were put out of work over the succeeding months.
In 1990, GM employed 5,100 people in Janesville. At its peak in 1978, the sprawling plant on the city's south side had more than 7,100 employees.
So when it came time to remodel the Milwaukee Street branch of the credit union, where Dutcher was working a few years ago, she started looking at ways in which historical items could be displayed in the branch. Her board of directors, however, began thinking about something more that just a few historical photos and signs.
They initially considered combining the Legacy Center with a new corporate headquarters but when plans for the site along the river fell through, the credit union purchased the former Moose Lodge in the city for its headquarters and the First National Bank building last summer for the Legacy Center, located in the midst of a downtown that is undergoing massive redevelopment.
"It is important to us that our expansion plans continue to contribute to Janesville's overall redevelopment strategy," Sherri Strumpf, the credit union's CEO, said when she announced the plans. "We are excited that this will not only return a building to its historical significance, but it will make a great backdrop for a museum that honors the men and women and families and friends of General Motors and the UAW."
The history of GM 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 and then returned to automotive production after the war.
It's only fitting that Blackhawk Community Credit Union is creating the Legacy Center to pay homage to GM and the other companies created in the city because of GM's presence. The credit union was formed in 1965 with employees of the Fisher Body Division of GM and office employees of UAW Local 95. Today, the credit union has 12 branches, over 60,000 members and over $600 million in assets.
But it's safe to say that Dutcher's office at the Milton branch that opened last fall is the only one that resembles a museum.
She has archival software on her computer and is always pursuing garage sales, thrift stores and auctions for anything related to auto-making in Rock County. She also gets a steady stream of phone calls and emails from former workers or the families of former employees offering up memorabilia.
Dutcher has collected identification badges for some of the 153 GM employees who worked at a temporary production facility at the yearlong Century of Progress International Exposition, also known as the Chicago World's Fair, in 1933. She has David Kinservick's UAW membership pins from 1936 to 1942 that were handed out each month, photo albums, shirts and jackets made for specific departments at GM and even a couple of the artillery shells produced in the 1940s.
"I'm all over the area grabbing things," Dutcher said. "I don't know if I know what I need right now because we're archiving everything so we're getting to a place where we're getting a better idea of what we have."
Some of her most physical work came in the spring of 2018, just as the buildings at the GM site were going to be removed. Armed with a headlamp and a power drill tipped with a screwdriver attachment, Dutcher began scouring the buildings for items. She pulled out dozens of signs, found a box of DVDs and VHS tapes that are likely training videos, and removed a fire hose reel. She also scrounged for pieces of wood and metal that could be used in art projects or in the creation of keepsakes like pens and pendants.
"I just grabbed," Dutcher said. "I didn't know what was going to be important."
Bricks from the buildings and smokestack were given away at two events in May and August and drew thousands of people from around the country. Some of her most prized items from the plant are salvage carts, which were used to move a wide range of bulky items. Some were on the third floor, and with no electricity to power the elevator she had to carry the carts down the steps by herself.
"I flipped the carts over and stood them up on their ends and put them on my back and just slowly made my way down the staircase," Dutcher said. "It was one step at a time. It took a while but I'm so glad I did it because they're just cool-looking and they're part of the history."