George West and His Paper Bag Kingdom
George West (17/2/1823 – 20/9/1901) attended the common schools. West immigrated to the United States in February 1849 and settled at Ballston Spa, New York. After spending a decade in Massachusetts managing several paper mills there, George West and his family moved to Milton in 1861, where he was able to obtain a position at the Pioneer Paper Co. as a manager. His employer, a successful businessman and inventor named Coe Buchanan, was also a partner in an idle mill in nearby Rock City Falls, called the Empire Mill. When Buchanan’s partner Harlow Kilmer was killed in a tragic machinery accident, Buchanan offered West the chance to purchase the mill. After some consideration, West took possession of it the following year.
At the time, cotton shortages stemming from the Civil War made producing paper from cotton rags expensive. Paper mill owners and inventors were scrambling to find alternate methods of manufacturing paper. West’s neighbour Chauncey Kilmer perfected a method that used rye straw in 1855 that could be used for newsprint paper. However, West decided to use manila hemp imported from the Philippines to produce manila paper.
West also decided that rather than limit his product line to various grades of manila paper, he would use some of it to create paper bags. Grocers’ and millers’ bags were in short supply due to the ongoing cotton shortage. If a paper bag could be produced from his manila paper, West reasoned, he would be able to sell them at a much lower price than any other bag manufacturer in the country.
The greatest obstacle to this plan was the fact that no one had been able to produce a manila-based paper bag capable of holding fifty pounds. Local grist mill owners were said to be dubious when they heard of his experiments, since the paper bags they had seen were made of single-ply jute paper that could not hold more than a few pounds of product. However, West used crisscrossing manila rope fibers that were able to withstand more splitting pressure than even cotton sacks. Although several individuals claim to have invented the square-bottomed paper bag and the machinery to produce them, independent sources credit West with being the first to perfect a reliable fifty pound grocers’ paper bag.
At first West’s bags were made by hand at the Union Store in Ballston Spa, but demand soon far outpaced his ability to supply them. He therefore erected a bag factory next door to the Empire Mill and in 1866 built a second paper mill next door, which he named the Excelsior.
The success of his operation gave West contacts throughout the industry. In 1869, West and the other seven bag manufacturers in the country formed an association called the Union Paper Bag Machine Co. Its purpose was to “buy and fight patents” so that each member had ready access to dozens of paper bag-related inventions. West was called the “guiding spirit” of the association, and for many years produced more paper bags than all of the others in the group combined.
West made extensive use of the patents that the Union Paper Bag Machine Co. acquired. Over the years there were several references to his ongoing upgrades in machinery. For example, in March 1875 the Ballston Journal noted that West had installed four so-called “Union” machines in his bag factory that could produce satchel-bottom bags in any size and in greater quantities than the seven then in use.
Another of West’s associations outside of Saratoga County was with a Scottish-born printer named Robert Gair of Brooklyn. After serving in the Union army during the Civil War, Gair returned to New York and began working as a paper jobber. In 1867, the two businessmen formed an equal partnership under the name Gair & West and set up a factory on Reade Street. There they printed labels on West’s new line of square-bottomed paper bags for grocers, department stores, millers, and other merchants. For almost ten years most of West’s finished paper bags were shipped to this facility for printing and distribution.
Local newspaper reporter John Bulkeley visited the Rock City Falls bag factory in 1874 and was clearly impressed with the modern machinery and efficient operations. In an article written for the Albany Argus he wrote, “There were seven machines running at the time of my visit. It would seem as if the product of one week’s labour of the thirty five hands here employed in feeding and attending to the rapidly working machinery would be sufficient to supply the entire demand for at least six months, but such is far from the fact; for with the 1,800,000 bags which these machines turn out per week, this firm has never yet been able to fill the orders which are constantly pouring in upon them.”
By 1875 West’s mills were manufacturing 5½-tons of manila paper per day. Half of this output was sent to his bag factory, while the other half was sent in equal parts to Chicago and St. Louis for his business partners to use in manufacturing their own bags. Eight teams of horses were kept in constant motion delivering raw materials to the mills and finished paper from Rock City Falls to the Delaware & Hudson Railroad freight station in Ballston Spa five miles away. Lumber was drawn from millions of forested acres in Milton and the Adirondacks, while lime (used for bleaching) and jute butts (used to give strength to the paper) were imported from other parts of the country or overseas. Total sales approached $65,000 per month, equivalent to $1.2 million today.
For about ten years, Rock City Falls could lay claim to the largest manila paper bag operation in the world.
West added to his paper empire by purchasing two mills in Middle Grove, Pioneer Mill in West Milton, and Eagle Mill near Factory Village. In 1875 he completed his largest acquisition - the former Jonas Hovey estate in Ballston Spa, consisting of several mills, a mansion, tenement houses and a large tract of land.
A year later, West refitted one of the former Hovey mills into a modern bag factory and moved all bag-making operations out of Rock City Falls. However, the Empire and Excelsior mills continued to produce manila paper for several more decades before being shut down for good in the 1920’s.
West was elected as a Republican to the Forty-seventh Congress, holding office from the 4th of March 1881 to the 3rd of March 1883. His re-election in 1882 failed, but he was successful in 1885 for another four year term. He was not a candidate for renomination in 1888 and resumed his former business activities.
West was also known as a philanthropist, donating funds to build a museum in Round Lake, New York, a Methodist church in Ballston Spa and contributed liberally towards the two soldiers' monuments in Saratoga County (at Ballston Spa and Schuylerville).
West sold his paper mill empire to the Union Bag & Paper Company in 1899 for $1.5 million. His original residence in Rock City Falls still stands. When West died at his mansion in Milton Avenue, Ballston Spa in 1901 his fortune today would be worth $75 million. His remains are interred in the Ballston Spa Cemetery.
Today, large portions of the Empire Mill still stand, along with the stone foundations of the Excelsior Mill and his twenty three-room mansion that now serves as the bed and breakfast inn we stayed in for the night.
ALL IN ALL QUITE A STORY