Ron is a retired electrician; both Ron and Margaret are long-time Rock County Historical Society supporters, Look West neighborhood leaders, Historic Homes enthusiasts, and community volunteers.
Editor’s note: Interview answers are mostly from Margaret.
Were you born in Rock County?
I was born in the old Mercy Hospital in Janesville. My mom and dad lived on 4th Avenue, which is now Centerway.
Tell me about growing up here, what were your childhood memories?
I have really good ones! We lived in a wonderful neighborhood. After my mom and dad moved from that house on 4th Avenue, they bought their first and only house. When my mom passed away in 2014, she had owned that house for 62 years!
That was the neighborhood I grew up in. There were kids all over! We did the typical things all kids liked to do then. We played out after dark in the streets. We rode our bike on the new blacktop that was nice and smooth. We fell off our bikes and hurt our knees and have the scars to prove it. And, I have wonderful memories of skating down at Traxler Park.
I went to Washington Elementary school, then down to Marshall Jr. High on Main Street and then to Janesville Senior High School, which is now J.A. Craig.
Growing up, I remember going downtown shopping for Christmas and walking the streets with my brother and my dad while window shopping. That was a good time.
When we were younger, there was a billiards parlor of a building on the first floor, and bowling was on the second floor. I forgot which building that was, but I got to go down there with my dad when he went bowling. It was such a fun memory for me.
What kind of clubs and activities were you involved in during high school?
We had some clubs. It was just getting started; girls weren’t really involved in athletics very much. There wasn’t anything available for most of us. I was involved with the FBLA, Future Business Leaders of America, and Spanish Club. But, that was about it.
We had lots of school dances over at Saint William’s every Wednesday night. That went on all summer long. The kids came from all over to go dancing there! Some of the kids had a band and they play sometimes, and we danced. We had such a good time. Then everybody walked home. You don’t do that in today’s world anymore.
Eventually, in high school, it became “Swing Lobby” down at the old Armory, and the old YWCA in the Courthouse district. We had a lot of fun dances there.
Of course, we did cruise the circuit when we got our driver’s licenses. The circuit started at the top of Milwaukee Street around Atwood, and then it went down all the way down to the 5 Points. It was all one-way traffic at that point to help the GM traffic. Then you would turn and head back through to Court Street, up down and around, over and over again and again. It was the 1960s and we had some great cars!
We usually sit on the sidelines for the circuit today. About a year or so ago, we were part of an “Old House Enthusiast” group. They were doing the circuit one night and Tom Skinner had his 1930’s truck. Tim Maahs and I rode in the back and Ron was in the front, and we rode the circuit that night! That was a lot of fun.
What were your ambitions after high school?
I went to Whitewater college to become a teacher. I had two years towards that and in between the first and second year, I met Ron. After the second year, we were going to be married that fall and I didn’t go back after that.
We were married in 1967 at Cargill United Methodist Church. Matter of fact, we just celebrated our 50th Anniversary this year!
We had two children, both born in Janesville. Brenda still lives here in town and she has two children. Our son, Dan, was into the service right out of high school. He stayed for nine years active duty and became a Navy Seabee. He was married out in Virginia and came home around 1997. They lived up in the Courthouse District on Holmes.
He got ambitious and became an electrician, just like his dad. In 2008, when GM closed, he went back into active duty helping men and women travelling to Iraq. He had already served in Iraq in ‘05 for about 9 months. So they moved out east again.
My daughter works at the hospital, and she’s been there for over 25 years. We still get to see the grandkids out east, and the others are here.
What sort of community activities were you involved in during that time?
We moved to this home in 1979 when Brenda was in 4th grade and Dan was in 2nd grade. They attended Adams and Washington Elementary after that. There was always the PTA. Dan was in sports, so I was also involved in the booster clubs.
We joined the Rock County Historical Society within months of moving into this house. While volunteering for RCHS, I made it to the front page of the paper somehow! There was moisture or something didn’t work in the building with the archives, so we had to wipe everything down with a certain solution and clean things out. I made the front page of the paper out on the lawn helping wipe down the furniture.
I was involved in a lot of RCHS volunteering for a while, though never a docent. I also volunteered when kids would come for Christmas tours and such.
I had also been rather involved in church, with confirmation and the camp. I never could retire because I never got paid for any of my jobs! But the church activities started falling apart due to poor communication, so I became more heavily involved in Look West and everything started coming together.
Tell me about your beautiful historic home here.
We originally chose this neighborhood to be close to our parents as they aged. I wasn’t always sure it was the right house, because when we originally walk through it there was SO much snow. It was so hot in here, the electricity was weird but, when I came back down from looking at the attic, Ron just goes, “I think we should move here.” He said it felt like home!
So we made an offer in early February we signed the papers in February ’79. We had a 30 amp service on this house; the minimum now is 100. So, we couldn’t even have all the lights on when we saw the house. When we had the TV on and the refrigerator and the microwave, everything went to half power! The picture went right off the TV! So we requested to have a new 200 amp service put on this house.
At that time Ron was an electrician, and he did some work on the Lincoln-Tallman House in the basement to get it up to regulation code.
Marthea Riley painted a beautiful landscape mural of Janesville on our dining room walls. It depicts the entire city all the way around, from the downtown and the Rock County Courthouse south, then west, with all the main corridors and railroad tracks, the northwest out toward the Janesville Country Club area, all the way with the Rock River running through it all, to the north east and back around to the Rock County Historical Society and the Lincoln-Tallman house across the street. She even inserted our family members into her gorgeous mural. At that time, Marthea was already working with RCHS. She helped give Lincoln-Tallman House tours.
But just to look at this house, what it was when we bought it, and what we’ve put into it! In spite of everything that’s happened, it’s been a good neighborhood and a good house. It’s helped our kids understand where we came from. They’ve learned about a different side of life, witnessing kids whose families couldn’t afford a bike. And it’s helped to make them better kids.
You are such great neighbors to the Rock County Historical Society, and you helped with creating a better neighborhood. Tell me about that.
When I was born in 1947, my godfather had the RCHS Stone House as their first house. When it was moved over to the RCHS campus in the 1960s, between my freshman and my sophomore year, I had started cleaning house for Mrs. Floyde Yeomans Sr. She asked me to clean the Stone House’s windows, so I did that job. And she paid me to do that! Not only was I connected because of my godparents, but I also cleaned its windows back when I was 16. And by 1979, I moved across the street! It’s all meant to be.
The 38 years we’ve lived here we seen so much change at RCHS. It went from being a house museum, where the cars were parked all along the road all summer long to very quiet. The Lincoln-Tallman House didn’t have a heat in the winter, and that didn’t happen until the 1980s. So they couldn’t have any tours or events in the winter because it was too cold.
We landscaped our front terrace. When tourists would come, they’d come over here and have their lunch. We always mowed our lawn on Monday because that was the day the museum was closed, so we wouldn’t bother them with the noise. We made it nice for all the people who wanted to have a picnic after they visited the museum.
By the 1990s we had gone through a lot of different directors, and it was pretty much staying the same. Eventually, we watched things slowly go downhill.
In 2005 we were planning for Ron to retire in 2006, and the question was, were we going to stay in this neighborhood or were we going to get rid of this house because of the danger in the neighborhood? Drug deals, prostitution, and Pitbull breeding were very common here at that time. Even the Tallman Arts Festival was starting to go downhill because people were afraid to come over here.
We tried to get more of a police presence down here, like they did in the Fourth Ward, but they didn’t have money for that. I finally got a good interview with the Chief of Police, Neil Mahan, and he came and walked the neighborhood with us and saw the exact same things I did.
After that, they started a program, similar to that in the Fourth Ward called “Look West” to try and help our neighborhood get back on its feet. That was the beginning of this neighborhood starting to change. In 2006, I joined the Look West group with Community Action.
People would say to me, “Margaret, you’re not with the church anymore.” And I would answer, “Do you realize I work with people who ARE church throughout this city? Because they chose to go out and fix the things that needed to be fixed.”
It was like I was meant to be there, (working with Look West). In 2008, when we lost General Motors, if we had not done this, we would have lost our neighborhood! The common denominator between the Fourth Ward and Look West was the bad landlords; they just kept moving the trouble back and forth as we pushed back and forth. It would toggle between the two neighborhoods.
By ’09 positive change was on the horizon, so we decided to stay. And that’s when we started to work on our house here. In 2011 we were on the Historic House Tours of Janesville.
We began to help with the Janesville Historic House Tours, and we would interview the homeowners, do the research and type up the descriptions over in the Rock County Historical Society Archives.
In 2012 we really saw some change and the police were really hitting hard on crime. Things were under control and pretty well gone. So, we did the Prospect Hill neighborhood for the Historic House Tours, I had done all my research.
Mike Reuter, the new RCHS Executive Director, came the summer of that year. I was able to share with him all the information in the archives.
In that same year, 2012, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had to take a step back and couldn’t do the Historic House Tours. But, that’s alright; there were other people to take over.
Mike’s been at RCHS for 5 years now! He’s still here, and I’m still here. I’ve done chemotherapy and radiation these five years, had another bout with cancer, but that’s been taken care of. And I’m thankful to still be here.
When Mike Reuter arrived, I asked him, “Do you know what you’re getting into? Do you know how many directors we’ve had and what this place is?” He said, “Margaret, I can assure you, I’ve researched this place very well, I know who’s been here, and I know what I’m getting into.” So, I said, “Good! Now, just stay here!”
Mike hired so many young, new faces and I was worried that they would not be able to relate to us old, gray haired people. We are so status quo and don’t like change. But they’ve all been so respectful and wonderful! They’re all so technologically savvy, and that’s been so helpful. I’m SO impressed with all the staff at RCHS! They ALL care.
The Rock County Historical Society has been wonderful neighbors! I have received get-well cards, and members of the staff have called, asking how I am.
If we hadn’t done the neighborhood improvements, the Lincoln-Tallman house wouldn’t have a new roof or be where it is today. The city would have stopped funding it, because why would they fund that house if people were too afraid to come here? It wasn’t just me who did it; it was the City of Janesville, the police, it was a huge cooperative effort. Even as our Neighborhood Watch team has disbanded, we’ve all stayed so connected.
There are good things going on at RCHS. Now it’s prospering again, and it’s just so good again, like it was when we first moved here, different, but so great. The past few Tallman Art Festivals have been wonderful, and “Spirits in the Night”! It’s just so good!
Now, we see all the kids down here with their pictures being taken for graduation, homecoming, prom or senior pictures. It’s good PR! Those students are going into the future staying let’s go back there and explore the Lincoln-Tallman House again.
It was fun to see the Frances Willard Schoolhouse moved to the RCHS campus here. When we saw the crane moving it, I said to Ron, “It’s like the house in the movie ‘Up’!” Now the 3rd & 4th grade kids are coming over for the school tours. It’s wonderful!
Tell me about some of the changes that you’ve witnessed over the years in the area.
One of our first big changes was when the city changed Jackson Street to two ways, the same as Franklin Street. The hospital brought a lot of traffic with ambulances and fire engines. But we knew all that when we moved here, and bought into that.
So the street is two-way and now with the new Dean St. Mary’s Hospital, and clinics on the north & east sides, we lost a lot of traffic, and we lost a lot of the noise here.
Ron: When Jackson went two-way, we also requested to change parking from our side to the other side of the street so kids, and the elderly, no longer had to cross the street to get to the Tallman house.
Margaret: I took it to the city council to request that, and I gained what I set out to do.
You’ve been married 50 years. Congratulations! What are your secrets to a long marriage and love life?
Ron: You’re both at the head of a ship and sometimes it gets rough, one can go forward and one can go backward, but eventually you’ll both get back to the steering wheel and you’ll steer your way through life.
Margaret: It’s love and patience and forgiveness and kindness. If you don’t have those…there are always hurts and always bad things that happen, but you have to be willing to continue to move forward.
That showed up in what we did in the neighborhood. You must look for the good. No matter how bad the situation, you can always find something good. That positivity is what brings us forward.
We’ve had some wonderful years here. We’ve struggled through losses in our family, and health crises, but we have so many good memories.
Ron: And this is our new normal. You watch people pass on. It’s just something that you have to go through, and adapt to. But you keep moving forward.
Margaret: Both of our parents celebrated their 50th before they passed, too. So, they set good examples for us. We aimed to not make the same mistakes, but then you have your own … and you have to work through them together.
What keeps you here in Rock County?
The grandkids who live in Williamsburg, VA always tell us that we could just move out with them, but my mom lived here. She passed in 2014, and there was just no way I was going to move. And all of my siblings live here but one. Family is what pulls us back here.
The city has its flaws, but it also has a LOT of good. Sometimes old buildings were lost. Some were torn down because “new is better.” And other times because it takes too much money to restore them.
Old-growth lumber has become a rarity. We have those original pieces in our home. You just can’t make houses like this anymore. You either have time or you have money but you never have them together. That’s true, but it doesn’t stop us.
Even though we’ve lost General Motors and a lot of other things, the city keeps moving forward, just as well as we have.
We love where we live. We have a wonderful neighborhood and wonderful neighbors, I know my neighbors. The people at the Rock County Historical Society are not our “workers”, they’re our neighbors! And I’d never want to leave.