Tuesday 4 July 2023

Fire, water, and flowers: The Rose Bowl at the OAC

Time, like fire, is one of the chief consumers of old structures. Fire was never likely to consume the Ontario Agricultural College's (OAC) reservoir but time has always brought new things to campus and taken old things away.

So it was that the the old water reservoir, often called the "Rose Bowl," would soon "be history" (Sands 1956). The campus was being updated and, as it no longer served its original protective purpose, the reservoir was being filled in.

The history of the reservoir begins in the spring of 1896, when the OAC's Chemical Laboratory burned to the ground. Fire was ever a hazard for individual buildings but, as the College grew and its stock of buildings increased, the potential loss to fires increased rapidly. The College's existing fire-fighting equipment was no longer up to the task of controling blazes, so measures to improve it were undertaken.

In the previous year, wells had been drilled to supply the campus with water but there was no place to store water for use in emergencies such as fires. So, as a new Chemical Building was erected on the site of the old one, a rectangular pit was dug between it and the Massey Library to act as a reservoir. The pit was 100 ft. long, 63 ft. wide, and 10 ft. deep, holding about 250,000 gallons of water. It was lined with cement and pumps and hoses were set up so that water could be extracted and used to douse any campus blazes.

(The Gymnasium Building reflected in the new reservoir. Postcard published by Rumsey & Co., Toronto, 1906. The swimming "tank" in the basement of the Gymnasium was also set up to act as a reservoir for fire-fighting when the need arose.)

A report in the OAC Review states that first- and second-year students were employed to dig the pit! If true, then we can only lament that standards for extra-curricular activities on campus have sadly fallen since that day.

("Massey Hall and Library, Ontario Agricultural College, Guelph." Postcard published by A.B. Petrie & Son, ca. 1910.)

In any event, students were called out to witness and participate in the system's first test (Mercury, 24 Nov. 1897). It was conducted by Chief Robertson of the Guelph Fire Brigade and went well:

The students were called out and a detachment detailed off to work the hose. The double fire pump was started up, forcing the water into the hydrants. The first trial was made on a hydrant at the foot of the gymnasium, when a stream was thrown about twenty feet over the dome of the barn, a distance of about 60 or 70 feet, while the gauge showed 115 lbs. pressure. In front of the College proper, while the ground is a trifle higher, there was 120 lbs. pressure. At the rear of the main building two lines of hose were attached to one hydrant, and the water was thrown some 20 or 30 feet over the building. They have two new hand reels and 800 feet of new hose.

The reservoir seems to have proved its worth on a number of occasions. One fire of particular note occurred on 20 March 1942 when the main barns on campus caught fire. These structures were notoriously prone to fires and, being full of flammable things, tended to burn down rapidly. The first campus barns had burned to the ground in 1885 and their replacements, built the following year, in 1888 (Buchanan 1942). The third set lasted for 55 years but finally succumbed.

At the time, part of the OAC was in use as a military training facility, especially for RCAF Wireless School No. 4. It was two students of the School who turned in the alarm that evening. The fire-fighting effort went well (Buchanan 1942):

Fortunately, the splendid fire fighting equipment of the Air Force was close at hand and was quickly brought into use. A little later the Guelph city fire brigade arrived, and between them the fire was sufficiently held in check to make possible the safe removal of all the livestock, both horses and cattle. Then, too, by persistent fire fighting the fire was completely checked at the junction of the horse stable and the main barn, so that only the east wing and the main barn were destroyed.
In the effort to rescue the farm animals, OAC students and staff were assisted by Wireless School trainees, a collaboration that helped to ease tensions between groups then sharing the campus.
("Excursionists at O.A.C., Guelph." Postcard by unknown publisher, ca. 1905. The Chemical Building can be seen at the left margin, the Gymnasium in the centre, and the new barns in the background on the right side.)

Of course, campus residents found uses for the reservoir beyond fire-fighting. For example, in its very first winter, students began to skate on it and play hockey. In the summer time, the reservoir was used for swimming to cool off from the seasonal heat.

("Reservoir and Gynmasium." OAC Review, June 1907, v. 19, n. 9.)

Besides seasonal fun, a pool on a large campus afforded opportunities for students to discipline one another. One example may be illustrative (OAC Review 1913, v. 26, n. 1, p. 46):

I knew a big, stout fellow who came to school with the avowed intention of stirring the place around some—and he proceeded to do it too. After he had been held under the surface of the reservoir for half a minute he was only mildly profane. Another half and he could have posed as a model sheep. His fellow students enjoyed life more pleasantly because of his hazing.
At the same time, having a large pool of water around presented a hazard to safety, despite the presence of a three-foot-high fence. This risk was illustrated on 5 August 1916 when Billy Green, six-year-old son of Engineer A.E. Green fell into the reservoir and drowned (OAC Review 1916, v. 29, n. 1, p. 18).
("In memory of little 'Billie' Green, who was drowned on August 5th, in the College reservoir." OAC Review v. 29, n. 4, p. 114.)

On 4 November 1939, second-year student Ronald Miller fell into the pool and drowned while searching for insects beside it (OAC Review 1939, v. 52, n. 2, p. 80).

("Massey Hall and Library." OAC Review 1935, v. 47, n. 8.)

In aesthetic terms, the pool became widely admired for providing pleasing reflections of nearby landscape and buildings. After the Main Building was demolished in 1930 (among other things, it was determined to be a fire hazard), replaced by Johnston Hall, and its front gardens buried, the canon known as Old Jeremiah was placed next to the reservoir, adding another attraction and a focal point to the site.

("Massey Hall, O.A.C., Guelph, Ontario." Postcard published by F.H. Leslie, ca. 1935; from the Keleher Collection. Note the position of Old Jeremiah at the north side of the reservoir, not to mention what appear to be newly planted roses in the surrounding garden— the birth of the Rose Bowl.)

In the same year, the reservoir was chosen to be the site of the Rose Test Garden. The Rose Society of Ontario was looking for a site to house its program to develop varieties of roses, both for show and for commercial purposes. The OAC was chosen as host, in part because Paul Sanders, then in charge of ornamental horticulture at the College, was a fan (Rolph 1942). With the blessing of the College administration, work began with the planting of 450 roses in the garden in 1931. The garden was sited directly next to the reservoir, perhaps for ease of access to water and to enhance a place that was already regarded as a campus beauty spot.

("Administration Building, O.A.C., Guelph, Ontario, Canada - 4." Postcard published by F.H. Leslie, ca. 1935. Here we see the back of Old Jeremiah from across the Rose Bowl.)

In honour of this association, the reservoir and garden became known informally as the Rose Bowl.

The Rose Bowl worked its way into the culture and imagination of OAC students. Being of large size, the reservoir water did not heat up quickly and gained a reputation for being cold. This characteristic became the basis for poetic comparisons among students, as in this poem published about (and by?) a resident of Macdonald Hall, the Home Economics school for young women on campus (OAC Review, v. 53, n. 2, p. 84):

Apologies to Rossetti

The Mac Hall girl leaned out
From the cold and draughty sill,
Her eyes were cold as Rose Bowl water
In November’s awful chill.
She had three apples in her hand.
The curlers in her hair were seven.

The Mill’s Hall boy looked up
From the hard and frozen ground.
She looked down with intense displeasure...
He could not make a sound.
Still with his eyes he could be beg—
He got those apples—on his head!
Ouch! Not Romeo and Juliet's balcony scene but maybe more true to life.
("In the grounds—Ontario Agricultural College, Guelph, Canada." Postcard published by Valentine-Black Co., ca. 1945; from the Keleher Collection. Note the roses, Old Jeremiah, and the Portico in the background.)

The Second World War proved a setback for the Rose Bowl. Maintenance was cut back as energy was devoted to the war effort and control of the campus was divided between the RCAF and the Province of Ontario. After the war, the campus was restored entirely to the OAC but the Rose Test garden fell further into disrepair. By 1950, the Rose Society of Ontario decided to abandon it.

("Administration Building, Ontario Agricultural College, Guelph, Ontario, Canada." Postcard published by Alex Wilson Publishing Ltd., ca. 1950.)

In the mid-1950s, a newer and bigger water reservoir was built further east, near the water tower that had been built in conjunction with the erection of Johnston Hall. That made the old Rose Bowl reservoir redundant. The time had come for its removal.

("Administration Building, Ontario Agricultural College, Guelph, Ontario, Canada." Postcard published by L.F. Charter, ca. 1960. Note that the Rose Bowl has vanished.)

The ornamental fence was dug out, the hole filled in, and the site covered up. Memory of the Rose Bowl faded away, its image now confined to old pictures and postcards of the OAC campus.

("Massey Hall and Library, O.A.C., Guelph, Can." Postcard published ca. 1915 by International Stationary Co.; from the Keleher Collection.)
Works consulted include:
  • Buchanan, J. (1942). "Fire!—Fire!—Fire!" OAC Review, 54(7): 397–398, 435.
  • Rolph, A.H. (1942). "Ten years of the Test Garden." Annual of the Rose Society of Ontario, p. 58.
  • Sands, D.R. (1956). "The 'Rose Bowl'." OAC Review, 68(4): 16–17, 25.

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