Historic company outlives GM production in Janesville

Print Print
Sunday, February 21, 2010
— When Janesville’s first Chevys rolled off the line in 1923, W.R. Arthur was on hand to drive the vehicles to area dealerships.

As the final Janesville-made Tahoes came off the line 85 years later, descendants of Arthur’s company were there to ship them.

The company conjoined with General Motors in Janesville will close its doors by April 1, outliving its sibling by more than a year.

Allied Automotive Group announced in December it would close its Janesville shipping yard and put about 100 people out of work.

Founded in 1923 as W.R. Arthur Co., the operation has had five owners and transported millions of vehicles over hundreds of millions of miles.

In 1960, Arthur sold the company to Edmund Brady, who renamed it Janesville Auto Transport Co.—JATCO as it was commonly known. National City Lines acquired the company in 1970 and sold it seven years later to Ryder Systems. Ryder sold it in 1997 to the Atlanta-based Allied.

For most of its history, the operation handled outbound and inbound shipments of vehicles by both truck and rail. Workers drove locally built products to the massive yard bordered by Kellogg Avenue and Jackson Street. There, the vehicles were assigned to outgoing loads or mixed with incoming deliveries for shipment to dealerships in the Midwest.

“It’s the best place I ever worked besides being in the service,” said Larry Butler, who joined the company in 1970 as a grease and oilman in the tire department.

Before retiring in 2000, Butler also served as a mechanic and welder, keeping the company’s trucks on the road.

“I worked with the best group of people,” Butler said. “I was really blessed.”

An example, he said, was how the company handled layoffs.

“It used to be that any time we’d smell a layoff, a junior guy would be gone,” he said. “But we got that changed so the senior guys could take 30 days of voluntary vacation so the junior guys could keep working.

“That was the best thing that ever happened.”

Butler smiles as he talks about the annual retirement party, the one everybody attends.

His pride radiates when he recalls the annual Christmas drive for the needy.

“A group of fellas did it for about 25 years, and you never had to ask anyone twice,” he said. “It wasn’t the Teamsters or the UAW doing it; it was just people coming together to help people.”

He saddens, however, when he looks at a yellowed company directory, the names of deceased co-workers checked off in red.

“It was a very tight-knit group,” he said.

Mike Johnson agrees.

He joined the company in 1972 when it was National City Lines. Thirty-five years later, he retired after spending most of his time in the company’s yard.

“I also drove for about six months, mostly to dealerships in the Fox River Valley and central Wisconsin,” Johnson said. “But I backed away from the driving because there were an awful lot of impolite drivers that made me very, very nervous.

“They didn’t seem to care that I was sitting on 80,000 pounds and how long it would take me to stop.”

Johnson joined the company with a large group of new workers. GM had decided it didn’t want to load rail cars anymore, so the Janesville yard took on workers and expanded its railhead.

In its heyday, the company employed about 800 people, Johnson said. Teamsters Local 579 represented yard workers and drivers, while United Auto Workers Local 95 represented office and shop employees.

“It was a good place to work,” Johnson said. “Of course, you had guys you liked to work with and guys you didn’t, just like any job.”

Johnson, like Butler, enjoys the annual retirement party. He’d like to attend monthly retiree breakfasts, but his commitments as chaplain of VFW Post 1621 conflict.

“It was a good team,” he said. “Whenever the company got behind something—the United Way, charity or whatever—we’d do our part to help out.”

Butler said the company’s history is not well known in Janesville. Neither is its impact on the community, he said.

“The company gave an awful lot to Janesville,” he said, noting that he retired on a full pension and full Social Security.

“Good people worked there—people who served on the city council and were involved in other things,” Butler said. “People like Mike Johnson, who has done so much for the VFW. People like the Ellis family, who have done so much for youth baseball and kids in the community.”

The Ellis family includes Steve Ellis, who will leave the company with 37 1/2 years. It also includes three brothers, a sister and a sister-in-law still working at Allied.

“My father worked there, too, and that’s how I ended up with the company,” Ellis said.

Ellis hired on a couple of weeks after Johnson when the company expanded its railhead.

“It was a fairly large company back then, 700 or so,” he said. “But even at that size, it was like a family.

“We worked together, and we socialized together. But we’ve changed companies a couple of times since then, and it’s no longer the way it was.”

It’s the way of big business, and Ellis said that while he might not like it, he understands it.

“I have absolutely no complaints,” he said. “It put my two boys through school and has given me a good life.”

Last updated: 12:50 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

Print Print