William Bell Sands was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1842, the only son of Samuel and Sarah B. (Innes) Sands. William's father made his careers in the printing and publishing business. From the 1830s on, Samuel Sands was the editor and publisher of the American Farmer, the dominant agricultural journal in the country. Under his leadership, the American Farmer strongly advocated the establishment of the Maryland Agricultural College (M.A.C.), and the advancement of agriculture and agricultural education in Maryland was one of Samuel Sand's chief interests. It would also be the chief interest of his son, William.
In October 1859, many of the prominent men in Maryland sent their sons to the newly established M.A.C. to be trained as gentlemen and leaders. William Sands was one of the thirty-four young men in the first class. Unlike most of the students, Sands elected to follow the classical curriculum rather than the scientific one that distinguished the new college from other American colleges.
In January 1860, the members of the Calvert Fraternity, one of the two literary societies at the college, elected Sands as their first president. The literary societies provided much of the intellectual stimulation students received at the college. Each society had a better library than the college itself. Here the students learned to debate and analyze the issues of the day. Such training served Sands well in his later career as editor and publisher of the American Farmer.
In June 1862, Sands received his A. B., as one of the first two graduates of the college. He delivered an oration on "Labor" to the assembled crowd at commencement. Following graduation, Sands took a position as a clerk in the Office of the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton.
During his years in college and in Stanton's office, Sands courted Florence Murray Jessop, the daughter of his parents' friends, William and Cecilia (Johnston) Jessop, of Vaux Hall, Baltimore County. Sands and Florence married in October 1864. They lived apart during the first months of their marriage while Sands served in Humphrey's 3rd Division, 5th Corps, Army of the Potomac.
After the war, William went into business with his father in the publishing firm of Samuel Sands and Son. He eventually succeeded his father as editor and publisher of the American Farmer. Sands controlled the journal for nearly two decades, until he sold it in 1897.
Like his father before him, Sands used the American Farmer to advocate and shape the advancement of agriculture and agricultural education in Maryland. But where his father had helped to establish a college to make gentlemen and leaders out of the sons of planters and professionals, Sands promoted the interests of the small farmers of Maryland in technical training in agriculture.
Under his leadership in the 1870s and 1880s, the American Farmer led the attack on the planters who controlled the Maryland Agricultural College. The Morrill Act of 1862 provided money through land grants for technical education. The administrators of the college, and the stockholding planters who supported them, continued to offer only a liberal education for gentlemen with an emphasis on military discipline and some courses in engineering. The small farmers wanted a state-supported college for the sons of farmers. As a stockholder in the college himself, Sands, in 1876, joined a proxy fight to oust the college president, William H. Parker. Although this attempt to alter the course of the small college failed, Sands continued to promote the views of the small farmers. During these years of controversy, the college did not larger or stronger. But through changes in federal law, the small farmers eventually won.
With the passage of the Hatch Act in 1887, money for agricultural experiment stations was provided to each state. The establishment of the station at the Maryland Agricultural College opened the way for the college to serve effectively the interests of the small farmers. The second Morrill Act, passed in 1890, provided yet more money for technical education in agriculture at the land grant colleges. The Maryland Agricultural College began to serve the interests of practical agriculture for which Sands had fought for nearly twenty years in the pages of the American Farmer.
Sands was vitally interested in agriculture, education, and government. He interests in these fields involved him in many actions unrelated to the Maryland Agricultural College. Sands and his wife, Florence, lived at Hollins Station, Lake Roland, in Baltimore County. There he grew fruits and flowers in his private greenhouses. As a native and resident of Baltimore County, Sands was also active in local affairs. He served on the Board of Directors of the Maryland Institute of Art from 1894 until his death in 1913, and, from 1906 to 1913, he was chairman of the schools of Art and Design.
In 1897, he was named a Judge of the Orphans Court of Baltimore County. He ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for a state senate seat in two years later. He was the secretary and treasurer of the Baltimore County Agricultural Society, and he founded the Baltimore County Fair.
Sands was also active in the agricultural movement throughout the state of Maryland. At various times, he served as secretary to several Maryland farmers' organizations, including the Grange, the Dairymen's Association, and the Farmer's Association. Additionally, he was the secretary of the Maryland Taxpayers' Association and a twenty-year member of the state Horticultural Society.
William and Florence Sands were married for nearly fifty years. They had eight children, seven sons and one daughter. Samuel, the first son, died in childhood. Walter, George, Frank, Hugh, West, and Murray lived to marry and have families and careers of their own. The only daughter, Mary Cecilia, never married. As long as William and Florence lived, she remained with them and cared for them. William B. Sands died at age 71 on April 7, 1913.