JANESVILLE

The idea of local “legacy” is being re-created—at least compared to an earlier conception of a museum that would honor the legacy of General Motors workers.

In a joint announcement Wednesday at the Lincoln-Tallman Restorations, Blackhawk Community Credit Union officials and the Rock County Historical Society unveiled a new museum concept that is still in its planning stages: Rock County Legacies.

The announcement came more than a year after the credit union shelved its ambitious plan to renovate the former First National Bank on West Milwaukee Street and turn it into a museum that would exhibit relics and curios from the dismantled and razed former GM assembly plant.

Rock County Historical Society Executive Director Tim Maahs said Wednesday that the historical society is partnering with the credit union to create a museum that will start with telling the centurylong history of GM workers at the auto assembly plant.

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A paint-spattered wooden cart and two signs used at the former Janesville General Motors assembly plant are temporarily on display at the Rock County Historical Society on Wednesday. They were some examples of the thousands of relics the historical society plans to inventory and curate to launch Rock County Legacy, a local history museum that initially will focus on stories and items that tell the history of local workers at the GM plant.

The first phase of the plan includes a branded, mobile recording van the historical society plans to use to gather individual stories from residents about their experiences, memories and personal history working at the GM plant.

Maahs said the concept of Rock County Legacies as a museum eventually will expand beyond General Motors and the history of workers there. In the future, the museum—in whatever form it takes—would encompass multiple exhibits that would tell the story of workers for multiple companies from Janesville’s past and present.

While still in preliminary phases, the historical society plans to help the credit union organize and curate thousands of donated General Motors relics that the credit union gathered prior to the GM site owner Commercial Development’s demolition and clearing of the 120-acre plant property on the city’s south side.

Blackhawk Community Credit Union marketing director CeeCee Philipps said the credit union has already committed to making available funds it has held for the original Legacy Center, a concept first unveiled in 2018. Philipps said there is ample money to begin moving the Rock County Legacies plan forward.

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Guests at the Rock County Historical Society’s campus in Janesville listen to a joint announcement Wednesday from the historical society and Blackhawk Community Credit Union of plans to relaunch efforts to assemble a workers’ legacy museum that will initially focus on exhibits of items and personal history of workers at the the former Janesville General Motors assembly plant. The guests are shown standing in front of a branded van the historical society will use as a mobile recording vehicle to record residents’ stories about working at General Motors.

The historical society has helped guide the project since BHCCU first planned to build a new headquarters, branch office and legacy center museum along the riverfront off South Main Street near Hedberg Public Library, but those plans eventually were abandoned.

The historical society remained involved as a consultant for the legacy center when the credit union bought and then began renovations at the First National Bank property. Those plans ultimately fell through, too, after the credit union sold off the site amid the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 before completing the transformation into a GM workers’ museum.

Since the sale of the First National Bank building, BHCCU officials have insisted the company did not intend to abandon the legacy center project or the GM plant items it amassed and now stores for safekeeping at facilities in Beloit, Janesville and Milton.

While there is no set timeline or prospective location for the new incarnation of the museum, the historical society showed an order of project phases Wednesday.

Those plans show that the historical society plans to begin immediately inventorying and organizing items donated by the former GM site’s current owners and dozens of former GM plant employees.

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Guests at the Rock County Historical Society campus in Janesville pass by an antique Chevrolet Corvette a collector was showing off Wednesday as they waited for the historical society to announce plans to curate Rock County Legacies, a historical museum that initially will focus on the history of local former General Motors workers. GM never built Corvettes in Janesville, but the historical society and Blackhawk Community Credit Union are partnering to plan exhibits of local GM plant items donated by the plant site’s new owner and dozens of local GM workers.

Historical society hires assistant executive director

In tandem with laying out the historical society’s plans, Maahs announced Wednesday the hiring of Cara Kinzelman as assistant executive director and curator of collections for the historical society.

Kinzelman, a UW-Whitewater graduate, holds a Ph.D. in history and has worked in museums and historical societies across the country. A specialist in local public history and a former intern with the Smithsonian Institute, Kinzelman will take the helm of planning and curating exhibits through Rock County Legacies and planning new programs at the historical society.

Kinzelman also will lead oral history initiatives, including gathering of local residents’ personal stories for the Rock County Legacies project.

Maahs explained the historical society’s mobile recording van initiative and a future, in-house story-collecting video studio space at the historical society’s campus on North Jackson Street.

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Bricks salvaged from the former General Motors assembly plant are bagged by volunteers to hand out during Blackhawk Community Credit Union’s drive-thru distribution at their branch location on West Court Street in Janesville in 2019. The credit union and the Rock County Historical Society unveiled plans for a museum dedicated to the legacy of the GM plant.

“At farmers markets or any events in town, if people see the van, they know they can come over and just tell a story to us about General Motors,” Maahs said.

Maahs said eventually, the effort to record local stories and feature other worker legacies will “evolve into chronicling tales from other industries in our county, as well.”

“There will always be a component of it (former GM workers’ legacy) in the museum, but it truly is intended to reflect the legacies of everyone—all the workers in our county, whatever that eventually will evolve into,” Maahs said. “But we will definitely play honor to the GM workers as long as we need to, and it will not change focus on that before everyone’s ready for it.”

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