One of the most prosperous residents in the history of Ballston Spa, NY, was a “Paper Bag King” who once laid claim to the largest manila paper bag operation in the world, also located in Saratoga County.
George West, was born in the English village of Kentisbeare in 1822. He was the sixth of nine children, and as soon as he was old enough West followed in his father’s footsteps and began working at a local paper mill.
After marrying his life-long partner Louisa and learning much about the paper making trade, West and his young family immigrated to America in 1849. He spent time in New Jersey and Massachusetts managing several paper mills before moving to the town of Milton, in Saratoga County, NY, in 1861. There he obtained a management position at the Pioneer Paper Mill in West Milton. His employer Coe Buchanan was also a partner in an idle mill in nearby Rock City Falls called the Empire. When Buchanan’s partner Harlow Kilmer was killed in a tragic machinery accident, Buchanan offered West the chance to buy the mill. West took possession the following year.
At the time, Civil War cotton shortages made producing paper from rags expensive. Paper mill owners and inventors were scrambling to find alternate production methods. West’s neighbor Chauncey Kilmer perfected a method using rye straw for newsprint, but 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.
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 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.
By 1875 West’s mills were manufacturing five and a half 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 busy delivering raw materials to the mills and finished paper from Rock City Falls to the railroad freight station in Ballston Spa, five miles away. Total sales approached $65,000 per month, equivalent to about $1.2 million today.
For about ten years, Rock City Falls laid claim to the largest manila paper bag operation in the world. West added to his paper empire by purchasing two mills in the nearby hamlet of Middle Grove, Pioneer Mill in West Milton, and Eagle Mill near Factory Village on Kayderosseras Creek. 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. His Ballston Spa mills, consisting of the Union, Glen, and Island mills, became the center of his operations, although six other paper mills along the Kayaderosseras continued to churn out tons of manila paper as well.
West became ill in 1898, just as paper bag factories around the country were being consolidated into giant corporations. He sold his mills to the Union Bag and Paper Company (now part of Union Camp Corporation, which also acquired nearby International Paper mills in 1999).
In January 1901 his wife of 56 years passed away. Already ill from Bright’s disease, West passed away just months later on September 28, leaving behind a fortune that would be valued at $75 million in today’s dollars.
Today large portions of the Empire Mill still stand in Rock City Falls, along with the stone foundations of the Excelsior Mill and his 23 room mansion that now serves as a bed and breakfast. His Union mill and bag factory building complex on Prospect Street in Ballston Spa survives as mixed-use buildings, with the “Geo. West” name still etched in the stonework for all to see.
Tim Starr is an independent historian working in the nonprofit field. In 1997 he moved to the Town of Milton and from 2003 to 2013 served as the Treasurer of the Saratoga County Historical Society (Brookside) Board of Trustees. In 2014 he moved to Glenville to be closer to work. He has written 18 books, some self-published and others published by Arcadia Press, which include histories of local industries, railroads, and inventions. He has also published a biography of George West with help from one of West’s descendants, Douglass “Tim” Mabee of Saratoga Springs. Tim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos: Above, Union Mill (left), West Bag Factory and George West Office Building from Prospect Street in 2008 (courtesy Wikipedia User Daniel Case); middle, a West family photograph including (seated) Louisa, Florence, and George; (standing) Walter, George Jr. and his wife Emily (the identity of the baby is not known); and below, what remains of the Empire Mill in Rock City Falls, Saratoga County, New York (Courtesy Wikipedia User Peter Flass).