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The History of Janesville, Wisconsin

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From the time of its early settlement, residents have been committed to excellence in commerce, education, recreation, and culture. For more than 150 years, the city known as Janesville has been progressive in its outlook and growth, and responsive to the needs of residents and businesses.

Brothers Joshua and William Holmes, Jr., John Inman and George Follmer were the first permanent settlers in Janesville in 1835. Soon after, Henry F. Janes settled on the east side of the river, platted his settlement and applied for a post office. In 1836, the postmaster general assigned the name "Janesville," to the post office. Thus began Janesville's proud history.

Residents, from the earliest point of our city's history, have been employed in manufacturing, retail and agricultural commerce. Businesses, both small and large, provide a diversified economic base. A strong work ethic and well trained labor force contribute to Janesville's robust economy.

The natural beauty that first attracted settlers has been preserved and nurtured through the years. With nearly 2,000 acres of parks, Janesville is known as "Wisconsin's Park Place." The Rock River, many nearby lakes, parks, and recreational facilities offer a myriad of recreational opportunities throughout the year to residents and visitors.

There is a great interest in and dedication to the preservation of the historic character of homes and buildings in Janesville, and approximately 20% of Wisconsin's buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places are located here. A commitment to excellence in culture includes lectures, exhibits, musical and theatrical performances.

Janesville's city government has provided leadership and guidance in managing the city's growth, while preserving its character. Forward Janesville, a private, membership-driven economic development organization, is instrumental in encouraging the growth of existing businesses and attracting new industries to serve those businesses. Forward Janesville and its members take an active role in local government and the educational system. Janesville has a proud tradition of excellence which ensures a high quality of life for those who live and work here.

For more information on the history of Janesville, contact the Hedberg Public Library or the Rock County Historical Society at (608) 756-4509.

Fun Facts About Janesville:

Janesville is filled with fun and exciting memories and new ones in the making. Here are a few examples of what our city is known for:

  • Camden Playground is he largest park in the world that is accessible for individuals with disabilities.
  • Our Rock Aqua Jays are an internationally known championship water ski team.
  • Janesville can claim the first public high school built in the state of Wisconsin.
  • The Janesville Country Club is the oldest country club in Wisconsin and sixth oldest in the nation.
  • NFL Hall of Famer Bart Starr threw his first touchdown pass as a professional football player in Janesville.
  • Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi gave his last speech as a Green Bay Packer and his first as a Washington Redskin in Janesville.
  • Janesville hosted the first established 4-H youth fair in the country.
  • The first Wisconsin State Fair was held in Janesville.
  • Carrie Jacobs Bond wrote the classic song "I Love You Truly" while residing in Janesville.
  • The Gideon Society began at the Janesville YMCA in 1899.
  • Janesville's Peace Park is the site of the World's tallest Peace Pole, which is at 52 feet tall.

If you would like to add to our fun facts list, send us an email!

The late 1980's were filled with uncertainty caused by a slowdown in the economy. Major employer layoffs and poor prospects for improvement led community business leaders to the conclusion that specific action focused on job diversity and increased opportunity through new company recruiting were the keys to turning the corner. It became apparent that one organization whose entire focus was business would provide the answer. In 1991, Forward Janesville was born through a merger between the Janesville Economic Development Corporation (JEDCO) and the Janesville Area Chamber of Commerce. All economic and community development initiatives were combined into one organization, increasing its overall effectiveness.

An aggressive program called the New Beginnings Program was launched in the spring of 1991. As a partner to the city's Economic Development Department, the concentration on expanding existing employment and attracting new businesses paid off in tandem with improvements in the economy. Being prepared to take advantage of new business opportunities and the expansion of several key industries allowed Janesville to realize over 1,750 new manufacturing jobs in less than four years. Direct ties to the new business incubator helped turn entrepreneurial desire into new employers testing their ideas in a nurturing atmosphere. A shell building was built, attracting potential employers to Janesville, and a more aggressive marketing campaign improved the image of Janesville as a good place to do business. Having accomplished a great deal through the New Beginnings Program, businesses and community leaders realized there was still more to be done to ensure a successful future for Janesville.

During late 1994 and early 1995, Forward Janesville, through input from business, community and education leaders, developed "The New Century Program," a strategy for the next four years that would guide Janesville economic development efforts into the 21st Century. The major thrust of The New Century Program was growth through retention and expansion of existing business. The four main program areas included: 1) Existing business growth and expansion; 2) Downtown revitalization; 3) Education; 4) Economic Diversity. Another key component that was successfully developed was a strong government relations program. During the years 1996 – 2000, Forward Janesville built a team of experienced professionals and recruited a volunteer team of over 300 business leaders involved on the Board of Directors, and various Councils and Working Groups. During this time the organization gained respect locally, statewide and nationally as an effective economic development organization. This broad-based approach to economic development positioned the organization to make incredible progress.

The economic downturn that began in 2000 affected the Janesville economy and Forward Janesville . Membership that had soared from 455 in 1995 to 740 in 2001 began to decline. Staff positions were cut and redefined, and program areas were reevaluated. In 2003, Forward Janesville found itself in a stronger position than in the previous two years, with a solid team of staff and volunteers once again in place and a renewed commitment to its mission.

The organization continues its strong work in government relations, education, small business, economic development and membership services. Recently, Forward Janesville has begun establishing regional partnerships that will help secure the economic future of this area and strengthen and diversify the area economy.