TOWN OF MILTON—One hundred years ago, the first tractor was built at the Janesville Samson plant.
Most people know General Motors owned the short-lived plant, and that the venture gave rise to generations of auto production in the city.
Fewer people know Janesville was a major producer of farm implements, providing the latest technologies to farmers around the country decades before GM moved the Samson brand to Janesville.
Steve Agnew has been collecting Janesville-made plows, planters and other machinery for years, and the pride of his collection will be on display at the Rock River Thresheree for four days, Aug. 30-Sept. 2.
The implements, some of them made to be horse-drawn, are showing their age. Few have any of the original paint. Agnew has a catalog from the Janesville Machine Co. that shows them painted fire-engine red with black detailing and yellow wheels.
Janesville Machine Co. was formerly Harris Manufacturing, which before that was Rock River Ironworks, founded in 1859, according to information Agnew has collected.
The company was Janesville’s biggest factory by 1908, employing 250 to 300 workers. Ten years later, General Motors bought the company and merged it with Samson Tractor after buying Samson, which was then based in California.
Local history buffs will recall Janesville Machine’s J.A. Craig persuaded GM pioneer William Durant to locate Samson in Janesville.
Janesville Machine converted to a hardware and appliance merchant in 1936, and lives on as Harris Ace Hardware on River Street, which was part of the original factory complex, Agnew said.
Craig’s memory lives on as the name of one of the two Janesville high schools.
Agnew’s collection includes a cultivator known as the “Little Janesville,” made by Janesville Machine. Another machine was called “The Janesville.”
Other companies represented in the Agnew collection include Janesville Hay Tool Co., which made the pulleys and other equipment farmers used to fill their hay mows. The machinery was sold around the country, and Agnew has pieces found in Nebraska and Pennsylvania.
“Janesville had a very good reputation for farm machinery, and this is one of the things General Motors bought (when they bought Janesville Machine),” he said.
Agnew will also bring a Samson tractor he is restoring, which will join as many as eight others from other collections, depending on the weather, he said.
Among the Samsons will be the first one Agnew restored, which belongs to the Rock County Historical Society. The society also will display a Samson truck.
The thresheree is known for displaying machines that were key to turning vast prairies into hugely productive farm fields and other early examples of the mechanization of the American economy.
Those machines include a variety of working steam-powered tractors and other machinery such as a pile driver that pounds 18-inch-diameter tree trunks into the ground, southern Wisconsin’s only steam-powered train and a threshing machine.
As for Samson tractors, they were made for less than three years and resulted in a $34 million loss for GM.
Fortunately for the city and for GM, the company began making automobiles in Janesville, and the rest, as they say, is history.