Inducted: October 27, 2004
Robert W. Knister was a farmer who thought and acted ahead of his time. He pioneered in growing soybeans, when their potential was still unrecognized by others.
He was sure that farmers could better their lot if they got together in strong agricultural organizations, and he sold this idea to anyone who would listen to him. This was at a time when many farmers prided themselves on being rugged individualists.
Ruscom, Ontario, the son of John and Elizabeth (Hedrick) Knister, the youngest of 12 children. His grandfather, Adam, by trade a carpenter and joiner, had come from Hessen Cassel in Germany in 1834 to clear the bush and build a log cabin in Rochester Township, Essex County. Both his son, John and grandson, Robert followed that farming tradition, and all were known as hard workers.
Mr. Knister got his education at a Ruscom public school, and started working on the farm at an early age. He married the former Elizabeth Banks, a teacher, at Strathroy on October 13"',1897.
Robert and Elizabeth spent the early years of their marriage in Essex; cash crop farming near Comber. The closing years were in Kent County, first in the Cedar Springs area where he operated Glen Erie Farms, which became known for its peaches and livestock. A business card from that period noted one advantage to that location: The farm was located on the electric railway from Chatham.
Family tradition is that Robert Knister gave lectures at Guelph Agricultural College (now University of Guelph) and also worked for the U.F.O. (United Farmers of Ontario), a party that was in power in the province from 1919 to 1923.
For the last years of his life, Mr. Knister farmed at Northwood, on the Fourth Concession of Harwich Township where he produced quality seed: and soybeans on a major scale. That crop was greeted with skepticism at the time, in an era before the world-wide potential of soybeans as a protein source was recognized.
Farming was not a highly profitable business in those days; most farmers were poor. Mr. Knister was determined to change that situation. He saw in organization, and in crop diversification, the hope of a better and more prosperous life for farm families.
While still in Essex County, he was the President of the North Essex Farmers Institute. Later, he became a founding member of the Ontario Corn Growers' Association, and eventually, its President.
When Fall Fairs were an opportunity to show the latest and best, he was an Organizer of the Western Ontario Winter Fair held in Chatham in 1920. Mr. Knister, then, and at every opportunity, promoted the advantages of a better organized farming industry, and the desirability of finding and developing crops to supplement the grains that were basic to most farm operations then.
His obituary in the Border Cities Star in 1931 credited him with being the largest soybean grower in Canada at that time.
Mr. Knister imported thoroughbred Clydesdale horses from Scotland, when horsepower still made a valued contribution to many farms. He bred Clydesdales and won many awards for them at the Chicago Fair and the Royal Winter Fair. He was also interested in the production of quality seed grains, a fact touted on his 1920s business card.
The Knisters were Methodists; and after 1925 Union, of the United Church. Mr. Knister was prominent in the Masonic Order.
The Knisters had two children, a daughter, Mrs. C.E. (Marjorie) Willan, of Windsor; and a son, Raymond. There are two grandchildren, Imogen Roberta Givens, of Waterford; and Robert Willan, of Windsor, both named for their grandfather. There are eight great grandchildren.
It was his son, Raymond, who was responsible for Canada-wide recognition of the Knister name into the 219` Century. (It was possible to access Robert Knister's name on the Internet in 2004 because of his son.)
Raymond Knister, was born in 1899, attended Victoria College at University of Toronto, but contracted pneumonia and pleurisy in the great post World War I flu pandemic.
After recuperating at home, he worked there for three years, honing his writing talents. Then he went to Iowa City to study fiction writing and to become the Associate Editor of the Midland, a prestigious publication that encouraged young writers. His position there gave him an opportunity to judge the work of others, and enough leisure time to continue his own writing.
After his return to Canada, he edited Canadian Short Stories and wrote White Narcissus, a novel that won enthusiastic reviews for its fresh approach and originality. In 1931, he wrote My Star Predominant, a life of the poet John Keats, which won a $2,500 prize from Graphic Publications. Tragically, Raymond Knister drowned in 1932, and was mourned then as a prominent and promising Canadian author and poet.
Robert Knister died a year before his son, and a front page obituary in the Border Cities Star paid tribute to him as a "prominent and pioneer farmer". He was, it said, extremely active in the social and political life of Ontario farmers. "Moreover, he was "always very active in farm works, taking a keen interest in every movement to raise farming standards."
Within a few decades of his death, the development of farm organizations, and of the soybean industry, were a posthumous endorsement of his ideas and dreams.