Dale Henning is a U.S. Navy Veteran, and a retired electrical engineer and stockbroker at Wells Fargo.
Tell me about your childhood in Rock County:
I was born in Janesville. We lived at 1238 S. Washington St., a block and a half from Mocha Moment. My parents were born on farms, but then came into town. When they were in their 70’s they still loved to set tobacco. My mother, when she was 75-80 years old, would want to sit on the back of the tractor and plant tobacco!
My dad was a milk man for Janesville Pure Milk, which was down on Delevan Drive. It was across from where Angi is now in a little old building there. My dad would take the milk wagon around town. They used to have horse barns out there, and I used to ride on Saturdays, if I could get away.
We lived near Mocha Moment and where the coffee shop is located, that was my playground. It used to be a kind of dump. The Miltmore Quarry was right near there, where the VFW is now. We played around there, and around the Rock River. I learned to swim in the Rock River. There was a manure spreader out in the middle of the river on a sand bar and that’s where we learned to swim. The water wasn’t very clean!
We used to play in the old original Janesville High School that was in the parking lot area next to the Armory. And we used to play on the Monterey Bridge, on the trestles and under the bridge. There were swings there where we’d swing and then drop into the river.
They really should have taken the dam out years ago, instead of putting all that money into the gates. It used to power the Rock River Woolen Mills, which was down near where the VanGalder Company is. They used to throw out all the old wool spools with spikes, that was the greatest thing to find one of those when we were kids! But, those dam gates were dangerous. I lost some friends who drowned in the river dams down there.
The passenger trains used to run down through here all the time and my mother used to take us down to the depot when I was about 10 years old, put us on the train and send us down to Chicago to my aunt and cousins. My mother was from a family of 18. They had come from the farm, and when the girls got old enough, they went to Chicago to find work. So we had family down there.
I remember when I was a kid, they would string up Christmas lights across Main Street and all up and down Milwaukee Street. That was great, the lights were something special for a little kid!
I went to school at Wilson and I attended the old Janesville High School down on Main Street. I graduated in 1951. I mostly worked through high school in dairy bars and restaurants. I worked at Miller’s Dairy Bar for a few years, which is now the Dairy Queen up on Racine St.
Our neighbor was Fred Brunie, and he was a captain of his Tank Company during WWII. He was a big guy and would put my brother and I on his knees and would run us around the yard. He used to take us down to the Armory and let us play on a couple of tanks.
On the south side of town, he would take us to a field where they had tanks off of Highway 51, near where the airport is now. They had the tanks out on a Sunday afternoon and Piper Cub Single Engine planes would fly over and drop sacks of flour on the guys to see if they could hit them. We thought that was so much fun. I’ll never forget that.
Sadly, Fred was killed in the Massacre of Palawan in the Philippians in late 1944. His wife, Hazel, was like a second mother to me.
What did you do out of high school?
I joined the U.S. Navy right out of high school. I was in the Navy for four years. I was at the Naval Air Station on Crash Boats for two years and then on Aircraft Carriers for two years. This was from 1951 to 1955, during the Korean War, but I wasn’t sent to Korea.
After the Navy, I went to Milwaukee School of Engineering for a degree in Electrical Engineering. I became a professional engineer and my first job was designing alternators. The first company I worked for was Fairbanks Morse and then Warner Electric and after 12 years away, I came back to Janesville to work at Amphenol. I was a Controls Engineer for years. I used to travel a lot, mostly the east coast, Boston, New York. Seems I was out there nearly every week!
We had a plant down near Marling Lumber. It was at the end of River St. and Rockport Road near the river there. It’s an empty lot now, but that’s where the old Parker Pen warehouse was. That’s where they had the biggest theft in Janesville history. Someone stole $6 million worth of Parker Pens, right after WWII, around 1946. They never did find out who did it!
I finally retired from engineering, and for the last 20 years I’ve been in the brokerage business. I’m a stockbroker for Wells Fargo here in town.
Did you raise your family here?
My wife was originally from Milwaukee. After moving back here, we raised our family here in Janesville. All three of our children went to Janesville schools and all three went to the University of Wisconsin. My youngest is retired already, she worked for Hallmark for thirty-two years. My son is president of a chemical company, and my other daughter is a teacher in Texas.
What were some of the community activities you were involved with in Janesville?
I served on the City Council for six years from 1964 to 1970. We were building about one grade school a year back then. That’s when the Council used to control the school district, before they went to a unified school district. I have been a member of the Kiwanis Club for 44 years now. I was the Chairman of the Bicentennial Commission, and President of the Chamber of Commerce. I also ran Oakhill Cemetery for some years, then I was the treasurer.
Interestingly, I was also on the board of the Rock County Historical Society when Rick Hartung was the Director, and later I took over as Treasurer. Sally Eager was our RCHS Board President for years. She was from Evansville, nice lady.
Back then I was both on the board of the Rock County Historical Society and I was a member of Kiwanis, too, so I went to the Kiwanis Board and asked them for money to plant Norway Maples around the Lincoln-Tallman House and the RCHS campus. They gave us the money for about 30 or 40 of them, so it was the Kiwanis Club who planted those beautiful trees.
Were you still at RCHS during the restoration?
Yes! And the restoration never stopped. I was on the City Council when they gave the first $5,000! I’ve spent a lot of time up there. I watched them drop the Frances Willard Schoolhouse on the Rock County Historical Society Campus. It was originally down on South River Road, and we used to play in it there when I was a kid. And we used to sneak into the Tallman House when we were kids. There never was a tunnel leading to the river … that’s an old tale.
What are some of the changes in town that you’ve witnessed over the years?
During the Depression, Janesville had nothing going on. I think the population sat at 17,000 forever. We were static.
When the war years hit, we had General Motors booming because they were producing shells there, and Parker Pen was growing because they were a leader in V-mail. (Victory Mail was a hybrid mail process used by America during WWII as a secure method to correspond with soldiers stationed abroad. To reduce the cost of transferring an original letter through the military postal system, a V-mail letter would be censored, copied to film, and printed back to paper upon arrival at its destination.)
Parker made all the ink for the pens in the military. I actually own one of Ronald Reagan’s Parker Pens. A friend of mine gave it to me.
My dad knew Henry Traxler. Mr. Traxler was a master at getting federal money. He put in all the river walls and storm sewers. That’s what made Janesville. He was a creative man, had a lot of vision and put Janesville in a good position.
I remember when Lions Beach was created. Before that, people swam around what is now Traxler Park. The building that the Rock Aqua Jays use was the old “bath house” for the swimmers.
The city limits were at State Street on the south side, and on the north around McDonald’s on 26. Toward the east it ended at about Randall Avenue on East Milwaukee. Outside the city, there was a city airport, back behind Kennedy Road. I think there might still be a hangar building back there behind Hufcor. Willard Woodman, founder of Woodman’s Food Markets, used to fly his airplane out there.
I was on the council when they built the parking deck over the river, the one that they just tore down.
Back in the 70’s we installed the new sewage plant. And K-Mart wanted to build downtown. They had a good area picked out, but there was one guy who had a little building, probably 20 feet wide and 200 feet deep. And he wanted a fortune for it. And nobody wants to be held up, so they threw the whole thing out and built out there on Highway 26. That hurt the downtown. Then there was a push to build out north of town. That would have happened anyway, though. That’s the way it goes.
We’ve always had good water systems here. We’ve always been able to keep up with our infrastructure … until our streets went to h<#!. I put the blame on Madison and the City Council. I blame the state for being afraid to raise taxes to fix the streets. And look at the Zoo Interchange, a billion dollars, and the Marquette Interchange a billion dollars, but they don’t put the money down for our Interstate. I don’t like taxes, but sometimes you have to bite the bullet and do it.
I love the new development downtown! One day I was out on a walk with my friend, Alan Dunwiddie. I said that the only way the downtown would change is if the banks give up these properties. The benefactors of the trust didn’t want to lose their income. Until the banks got rid of that stuff and allowed the free market to take over, it wouldn’t change.
I think downtown is on the right track. Changes are good, but it’s too bad we lost some of our old buildings down there. I wish they’d do something with the old hotel. There were some good times down there! They just torn down the parking ramp, and that was a good thing. I can’t wait until they tear the dam down. We need to return the river to the way it was.
Janesville’s downtown is changing for the better. With the new park going in next to the river, it’s going to be beautiful out there!
What is it about Janesville that keeps you here?
Well, I’m 84. I used to spend winters in Florida, but not anymore. I love it here. My wife, Doris, has been volunteering for the hospital for many years now. She likes it here, I like it here. It’s a beautiful city. It’s got everything you need.
And you know what the best thing about Janesville is? It’s 35 minutes to Madison, and hour and a half or two hours to Chicago, and an hour and fifteen minutes to Milwaukee. You can get to any of them quickly and still come home! And you don’t have to put up with going into O’Hare on a Thursday. It’s absolutely the best location you could have.
I’ve been to the Great Wall of China, I’ve been to the Pyramids, I’ve been to Tiananmen Square, been to Red Square, driven from one end of this country to the other, all across Europe. But this is home, it’s a great place. Why would I want to go anywhere else?