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Prime Focus

Janesville Cotton Manufacturing Company

Story by Teresa Nguyen

August, 2020

The original employees of the cotton company were mainly young women who had immigrated from Ireland and Germany. 

Cotton, Slavery and an Economic Boon

1860s - By the start of the 1860s, America produced two-thirds of the World’s Cotton. Cotton prolonged America’s social tragedy of slavery, and it was slave-produced cotton that led us into the bloodiest of all our wars, fought between the Northern Union and the Confederate South. After the Civil War, America regained its position as the world’s leading producer of cotton. 

In spite of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, the owners of the southern cotton fields held a tight grip over former slaves. Blacks were denied economic and physical mobility by our federal government policies and white land owners held onto the enduring need for cotton labor in the South. Northerners held a racist fear of a Black migratory invasion, which limited Blacks to living in the South and working in those very fields where they were once held as slaves. 
After the war, former slaves were to be contracted to the fields with strict guidelines, such as $10 a month pay and a 10-hour work day. If a laborer missed two hours of work, he lost one-half of his day’s pay. Blacks were also not allowed to leave the plantation without a pass.

The North needed cotton for its textile mills, though it aimed to deprive the South of its financial power. Federal permits were required to purchase cotton in the Confederate states. The steamship enabled the transportation of cotton along the Mississippi River, northward into the Midwest states. The system was riddled with corruption, particularly in the Mississippi Valley. 

Confederate cotton, subject to confiscation by the North, could not be distinguished from “legitimate cotton” grown by the planters loyal to the Union. The lure of sudden fortunes in cotton meant that most northerners were in secret partnerships with southern planters during and after the war. It was another example in our history where money buried morality.
1870s - By this decade, farmers and plantation owners in the American South had produced more cotton than they had in 1860. Through 1937, America remained the world’s leading cotton exporter.
slaves picking cotton - photo from genea
Slaves in a southern cotton field. Photo:
Cotton Branch
Cotton Comes to Janesville

As Janesville experienced an expansion of industrial development, one of the new industries along the banks of the Rock River was the Janesville Cotton Manufacturing Company.  The city’s first cotton mill was established in 1874.

Mr. Frank Whitaker and others called upon Chester Bailey, who became superintendent, and Addison J. Ray, of Massachusetts to come to Janesville to help raise capital and build a factory in Janesville. They had to secure local labor, import cotton (from the south), and find ready markets for the product. 
The Janesville Cotton Manufacturing Company was incorporated with a capital of $120,000, later increased to $500,000. The site for the building was secured on the race (the race has since been filled in), about half a block south of the upper dam of the Rock River.

The Janesville Cotton Manufacturing Company was an impressive three-story utilitarian building, with a five-story tower. The tower contained a stairway and a cable-controlled freight elevator. A 20-foot belfry with a mansard roof (a replacement of the original) crowned the tower.
Janesville Cotton Manufacturing Company in 1888
Photo by Lowell “Bud” Gruver, from the Hedberg Public Library Collection
A trio of arched windows highlighted the tower’s fourth story. Inside this fourth floor was a cistern of water for fire suppression.

Janesville’s cotton mill was first in the State of Wisconsin. In its early years, the factory operated 400 power looms and 10,000 spindles.

More Cotton Manufacturing

Another cotton manufacturing company was established in 1878 at the comer of Franklin and Wall streets. After a few years, a new factory building was built on North River, creating a growing industry of cotton/fabric manufacturing in our community.
1880s - The original employees of the cotton company were mainly young women who had immigrated from Ireland and Germany. 
In 1880, at its peak, the Janesville Cotton Manufacturing Company employed 250 workers. 

The company reorganized in 1886 due to financial troubles. it continued to produce cloth under the Janesville Cotton Manufacturing Company name until the turn of the century.  

Janesville Shirt and Overall Company

1900s - The Cotton Mill had only limited success. In 1906, it became the Janesville Shirt and Overall Company, which operated under this name through World War II. 
Vitage workers' shirt made in Janesville, WI
Janesville's cotton industry was growing in the late 1800's as more factories were built.
1940s - as America entered the war against Japan, Germany and Italy, and our young men went off to fight in Europe and the Pacific, new additions were added to the original Janesville Cotton Manufacturing Company. More women joined the Janesville manufacturing labor workforce as “Rosies”, while the war raged on.

1950s - In 1951, the business became The Janesville Apparel Company. That company name was short-lived and by 1952, it was changed to the Janesville Cotton Mills. The company made automobile seat pads and felt batting for cars, utilizing all three stories of the building. 

1980s - The original building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
Transformed into Apartments

Charles Carpenter of Madison rehabilitated the original building into the Cotton Mills Apartments and Townhouses, a 47-unit complex contained within two buildings.

1990s - Some the cotton industry buildings were razed along the Rock River area. 

2018 - Milton native, Justin Spalding, of the Spaulding Group, purchased the 1870s cotton mill building from W.P. Hart Properties of Madison.
The Spalding Group began a $300,000 revamping, rebranding and renovation effort on the apartments to draw new residents to the downtown Janesville area.
The apartment complex was then renamed Signature 23. The number came from the Spalding Group founder Justin Spaulding's NCAA All American football number. 
This beautiful downtown building stands as a reminder of our history, our connection to southern agriculture and its oppression, the industrial growth of the Mississippi Valley, and Janesville's continued determination to grow and strengthen the community.
More information on the apartments can be found at
Watch a Signature 23 Apartments fly over video by the Spaulding Group: 
Signature 23 Apartments at 222 North Franklin St. in Janesville, WI
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