Soon after Admiral Perry opened the doors to Japan in the 1850’s, the new Emperor Meiji instituted a bold plan to westernize and modernize Japan, in part by relying on the expertise of “hired foreigners” (yatoi gaikokujin). Many New Englanders were enlisted to help develop its northernmost island of Hokkaido, including Dr. William Clark, then President of Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts in Amherst). In 1876, Dr. Clark went to Hokkaido with three graduate students, including William Wheeler from Concord, to create Sapporo Agricultural College (now Hokkaido University). Their primary mission was to introduce northern agriculture and dairy farming to the region.
Upon Clark’s return to the United States, William Wheeler took over as the second president of Sapporo Agricultural School. Aside from managing the school, Wheeler utilized his background in civil engineering to make various contributions to Hokkaido’s then nascent infrastructure. Among his many other accomplishments, Wheeler surveyed the railway route from Sapporo to neighboring Otaru, built a meteorological observatory at Sapporo Agricultural College and collected the first scientific weather data in Hokkaido, and created unique designs for barns that would suit Hokkaido’s climate. Wheeler’s achievements were acknowledged by the Emperor with the singular honor of the Fifth Order of the Rising Sun.
Upon returning from Japan, Wheeler became a major contributor to Concord through his many engineering projects (he was granted around one-hundred patents over the course of his life) and years of public service. He built Concord’s water and sewer systems, including the water works at Sandy Pond, Nashawtuc Hill, Annursnac Hill and Nagog Pond. He was “Concord’s foremost citizen,” serving fifty-one years on Town committees and elected positions such as the Water Commission, School Committee, Board of Health, Light Board, Free Public Library, Town Donations and Moderator. He was also a Trustee of the University of Massachusetts from 1880 to 1929. In addition, he was responsible for bringing to Nashawtuc Hill its uniquely beautiful Japanese trees that were planted at his Concord home, called Maru-Yama Kwan (Round-Hill House) after his time in Hokkaido.