W.C. Blackwood (1879-1961)
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By Shari Dorr

A visionary public servant who managed the transition from manual training for men to agricultural engineering at the Ontario Agricultural College.

The School of Agricultural Engineering at the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) said that a professional in engineering science is a person who “utilizes the theories and conclusions derived by pure scientists and develops from these scientific principles machines, buildings, and other useful products” (Agricultural Engineering 5). By this definition Blackwood was a successful agricultural engineer. A close examination of his life, however, indicates that he was known for being more than a scientist. Blackwood was the honorary president of the 1923, 1928, 1936 and 1942 OAC graduating classes and this suggests that he was also an admired instructor (see Atkins). The suggestion that a positive relationship existed between the groups is further supported by the fact that students gave him affectionate nicknames (see Ward).

Blackwood was born in Harriston, Ontario, in 1879. He was the fifth child of Robert Blackwood and Isabella Ross, natives of Scotland who had originally settled on the Canadian east coast when they left their native Scotland after being married in 1870 (see Ward). It was not until nearly the end of his first year that the baby was named William Cameron Blackwood, as his parents could not agree on a name (see Blackwood). When he reached the appropriate age, William began school in Harriston. Despite a mischievous side (Hunt) Blackwood did well and earned his high school matriculation in 1896 (OAC Review 57 244). Following graduation, he started teaching school (OAC Review 1959 120). As becomes apparent from the Blackwood-Babion Family History Album, while he was said to enjoy the profession, he left after a short tenure to enroll at the University of Toronto (UT). Blackwood was enrolled at UT between 1902 and 1909, and was involved in athletics there (see W.C. Blackwood Collection). The date of his graduation is unclear, but Blackwood left UT between 1906 and 1910. Records suggest that he may have taken time off school in order to earn money to pay for his education (see Atkins).

Upon completing his degree, Blackwood spent time as a UT physics demonstrator from 1907 to 1909, and 1911 to 1912. Around that time, Blackwood accepted a teaching position with the Toronto Central Technical School in its department of physics. He taught there until 1915, when he became the department head (see W.C. Blackwood Collection). It was during this time that Blackwood met Lillie Fern Babion, a teacher and the only child of Susanna Sherk and Fredrick Babion of Ridgeway. After a short courtship they married on June 22, 1915. Their first child , Janet Babion, was born in 1916 and a second child, John Robert, arrived 18 months later (see Family History Album). Also in 1919, the professor was offered the position of physics department head at the OAC in Guelph (Ayers and Irwin 3). Since the OAC was operated by the Ontario Department of Agriculture, this was a civil service position that offered security (Murray 7).

Upon Blackwood’s acceptance of this job, the family moved into its Guelph home at 15 College Street and welcomed a third child when Alan Cameron was born in 1920 (see Family History Album). As department head, Blackwood strove to provide students with training in principles that they could apply to work in courses in other departments within the college as well as work outside of the college (Martin 19).

At a time when expansion in scientific knowledge was just gaining momentum and services available to agriculture were still somewhat primitive, Blackwood demanded that the college strive to solve as many of Ontario’s agricultural problems as it could, one of which was inadequate farm drainage. If land on a farm was too wet, crops would not grow (see Ferguson). The OAC physics department was provided with both the manpower and the equipment to survey lands for drainage purposes (Ross 103). As its leader, Blackwood contributed to the early improvement of farmlands and a greater commitment to Ontario farmers by overseeing the progress of this program. In January 1921, after several successful drainage projects and due to a personal belief that engineering would be important to a prosperous future for agriculture, he ensured that agricultural engineering be adopted as an elective course. (see OAC minutes of 1921).

The efficiency of farmland clearance also emerged as an issue during Blackwood’s tenure, and, like drainage, it fell under the jurisdiction of his department. In response, he initiated studies on the use of explosives for land clearance in 1925. This extension work coincided with an increasing interest in clearing up unsightly spots on farms (Hunt 37). In 1931, nine explosives demonstrations were performed in communities across Ontario, likely done by Blackwood himself (History, Activities and Accomplishments 5). Blackwood was known as a “crackerjack in dynamite,” (see DuCharme) as he was skilled in the use of explosives to the benefit of agriculture (see Atkins).

In 1928, Blackwood’s department merged with manual training to form the Department of Agricultural Engineering, and he assumed its leadership (Ross 47). In this role, he was responsible for agricultural engineering, the provincial drainage division, and the program’s activities and courses. At his insistence, agricultural engineering at OAC continued to include a technical course in the mechanics of farming. This continued because he felt that it would assist students in becoming competent farmers and advisors through extension work (Agricultural Engineering 6).

At OAC, Blackwood was consistently involved with students and his community (see Warlow). He wrote articles for OAC Review, sang at campus, church, and community events, and acted locally (see “College Department Head…”). A veteran of hunting and fishing, Blackwood won several Bisley Medals for rifle accuracy during his OAC years (see Atkins). He was also an avid sportsman–at OAC he used his UT experience as a soccer player to coach the sport and lead the college to its first championship (OAC Review 36.5 165). In recognition of these contributions, Blackwood was inducted into the Gryphon Hall of Fame at the University of Guelph in 1984 (see Copp and Folusewych).

Upon his retirement in 1946, Blackwood moved to Ridgeway, Ontario, with his wife (see Whitworth). There he continued active community involvement (see Atkins). On July 19, 1961, after a life full of activity, challenge and success, Professor W.C. Blackwood passed away (see “Professor Retires…”). After his death and in recognition of his contributions to the OAC, to farmers, and to science, the W.C. Blackwood Memorial Entrance Scholarship was established at the University of Guelph (see “Prominent…”). The university also renamed the old Engineering Building to Blackwood Hall in 1978 (see Family History Album).

Throughout his life, Blackwood contributed socially through his personality and professionally with his abilities and skills. Outwardly gregarious, yet very humble at heart, William Cameron Blackwood fulfilled ambitions far beyond the wildest dreams of a boy born in rural Harriston in 1879.

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