“The Paper Bag King” developed his paper-making skills as an apprentice in England and his business acumen as a 19th century entrepreneur in Saratoga County. George West earned the nickname from being on the cutting edge of offering flour companies a choice between cotton and paper sacks, the latter of which was cheaper and, hence, became more common.
West’s mill at Rock City Falls in the town of Milton was among the first in the United State to make bags from paper. It was one of about a dozen 19th century paper mills in Saratoga County that West would come to own.
West made the paper from Manila hemp imported from The Philippines. The Rock City Falls mill, at least at one point, also manufactured bag paper from pulp made from a combination of old rope and wood.
“Mr. West is now making one ton of heavy Manilla paper for flour sacks daily, and boasts that his paper is the best of the kind made in the country,” the Troy Daily Times reported on July 14, 1866, when the mill was using 500 tons of old rope and 700 cords of wood annually.
West, who lived much of his life at Ballston Spa, was penniless when the 26-year-old immigrated from Devonshire, England to the United States in 1849. When he died in 1901, West left an estate to his son and daughter valued at $2.25 million – the equivalent of $79.6 million in 2023 dollars.
The gregarious West, known to newspaper reporters as “Uncle George,” attributed his success to work ethic. “Uncle George delights to tell how he used to get up at five every morning, split the wood, build fires and cook breakfast before he started out on a three-mile walk to the mill, which he always reached a seven o’clock,” The New York Star reported in 1890, in an article republished June 27, 1890 in The Morning Star of Glens Falls. He had “a remarkable career” in the industry, the Star reported.
In the late 1880s, to make a statement about the superiority of American ingenuity, West bought the paper mill in England where he had apprenticed decades earlier. “I just did it to show them what a fellow could do in this country,” West told The Star.
“The mill was losing money, so I put in American machinery, showed them how we worked over here, and in six months the balance was on the right side of the book.”
When he first came to the United States, West worked at paper mills in New Jersey and Massachusetts, eventually buying an ownership interest in a mill where he worked in Massachusetts. In 1860, West sold his interest in the Massachusetts mill, and began buying and repurposing old cotton and paper mills in Saratoga County.
Some of the mills he operated made paper bags, wrapping paper, and newsprint. At least one made sand paper out of old rope and similar stock.
West, in poor health, sold all of his mills in 1899 to the Union Paper and Bag Company for $1.5 million – the equivalent of $54.3 million in 2023 dollars.
West also owned stock in the mining and newspaper industries, and in the Union Paper Bag Machine Co. He was a long-time president of First National Bank of Ballston Spa, and was noted for his philanthropy.
A Republican, West served in the state Assembly in 1872-1875, and in Congress from March 1881 to March 1883 and March 1885 to March 1889. He was a delegate to the 1880 Republican National Convention that nominated James Garfield.
West showed determination even in the three years that he was chronically ill prior to his death on Sept. 20, 1901, at age 78.
“At times (over the past three years) it seemed as though he could not live an hour, but his wonderful vitality would assert itself and he would recover sufficiently to be able to go outdoors,” The Mechanicville Saturday Mercury reported on Sept. 28, 1901.
You can read more about George West here.
Illustrations, from above: Portrait of George West from History of Saratoga County, New York; with historical notes of its various towns; West’s “Empire Mill” in Rock City Falls; and Union Mill (left), the West Bag Factory and George West Office Building in Ballston Spa from Prospect Street in 2008 (courtesy Wikipedia User Daniel Case).