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Little-Known Mill Owner Was Key to Milton's Growth

 

TIM STARR
For Ballston Spa Life

 

The town of Milton was fortunate to have a large number of inventive and ambitious businessmen in the early to mid-1800s who had such a positive impact on its industry. Some of these included Isaiah Blood of the Ballston Scythe, Axe & Tool Works, the “Paper Bag King” George West, and Glen Paper Collar Company proprietor Horace Medbery. In addition to the well-known businessmen of the nineteenth century, there were several others whose existence have been all but lost but played an equally important role in this area’s history. 

Coe Buchanan is probably one of the least known entrepreneurs of the town, but the evidence suggests that he may have played a critical role in the development of the paper industry in the town of Milton and possibly around the world. Very little biographical information is known of him locally since he was neither born nor died in Saratoga County. Because he did not leave a physical legacy or attain public office, almost his entire existence has been forgotten. 

There are a few contemporary sources that mention his name, and linking these together forms an active and inventive life that has never before been documented. He first makes an appearance in the 1840s as a partner of Chauncey Kilmer of Rock City Falls. Kilmer built one of the first paper mills in the county at the site of the Empire Mill on Route 29. A few years later he became associated with Buchanan, who brought to his attention a novel method of making paper from locally-grown rye straw.  

Until that time, nearly all paper was made from expensive cotton rags. Manufacturing paper from other materials, particularly rye straw, had not yet been perfected, but Buchanan urged Kilmer to begin experimenting with it. In 1855 Kilmer finally succeeded in producing a quantity of paper that was acceptable for newsprint. Kilmer’s Stone Mill became only the second mill in the country to sell rye straw paper commercially. However, by that time Buchanan had moved on to other endeavors and did not get credit for this breakthrough other than in Kilmer’s own biography. 

While they were experimenting with rye straw, Kilmer and Buchanan became interested in the Pioneer Paper Company in nearby West Milton. In 1853 the two purchased the mill, but a short time later Buchanan became the sole owner. He then took on several partners such as Elisha Comstock, William Wilson, and Solomon Parks. Within a few years it was one of the largest paper mills in the area. 

In 1858 Buchanan submitted his first patent, which involved the heating of rotary boilers. Rotary boilers were used to generate steam to treat rags, straw, and other materials for the production of paper. His simplified design overcame some of the drawbacks of other boilers then in use, such as their complexity, expense, consumption of fuel, and unreliability.  

Two years later he submitted a patent for a combined boiler and washer, which added an internal strainer to his rotary boiler. Buchanan’s invention was considered to be so important that it is one of the few patents to be named specifically in the book A Chronology of Paper and Paper-Making, which stated, “In 1860, C. S. Buchanan of Ballston Spa patented an improvement in boilers for preparing paper stuff: 1. The combination with a rotary boiler, or vessel, of a cylindrical strainer arranged within the boiler. 2. In rotary boilers, provided with cylindrical and concentric strainers, he claimed the construction and arrangement of ribs in the form of gutters. 3. He claimed providing the hollow journals of boilers constructed to operate as described, by rotation with a tubular plug capable of being shifted on its axis, such plug having one or more openings at the inner end so arranged as to allow of their coinciding with the channels or ways on the boiler heads, for the discharge from the boiler of liquid or steam.”  

An article in the Ballston Democrat dated February 13, 1866 reported that the Pioneer Mill was following Kilmer’s Stone Mill in using straw to manufacture newsprint for the New York Herald World, Albany Express, and the Troy Whig. At the time, Marcus Comstock was the foreman, overseeing the production of 4,500 pounds of paper per day using three tons of straw and 50 employees. The article quoted Comstock as saying, “We are happy to state that the late unhappy circumstances which entailed much loss to the company have been arranged, and that now, as before, we are the ‘Pioneers’ in the paper manufacturing industry of this town.” No mention is made of what those unhappy circumstances could have been, whether economic or worker related. One source alleges that the success of the mill brought dissension among the owners, with Buchanan fighting for complete control.  

Sometime in the 1850s, Buchanan became a part owner of the Empire Mill, situated on the same site that Kilmer built his first mill years earlier. The endeavor appears to have been plagued by bad luck from the start, as it was burned down at least twice and was not a financial success. 

Chauncey Kilmer, the original builder of the mill, withdrew to concentrate on his Stone Mill down the street (today known as the Cottrell Paper Company). However, a relative of Chauncey’s named Harlow Kilmer assumed ownership with Buchanan. Misfortune again visited the mill when a gruesome accident occurred in 1860. According to press reports, Kilmer was fixing one of the machines when he was caught in the cog gearing, cutting his body entirely in two.   

Apparently this was the last straw for Buchanan. He shut the mill down and offered it for sale to an employee of his at the Pioneer Mill named George West. West had arrived in Milton from Massachusetts the previous year and obtained a position as a manager. 

In 1861 George West purchased the Empire Mill from Buchanan and began his successful career manufacturing manila paper. West is often given credit for the idea of using jute butts from manila hemp to produce a course type of paper rather than the more expensive cotton rags, but there are indications that the Empire Mill had already been equipped to produce manila paper before West owned it. In fact, two independent sources referred to it as the “manila paper mill” at the time of Harlow Kilmer’s death.  

If that is the case, then Buchanan is indirectly responsible for sowing the seeds of West’s huge manila paper empire. It could be argued that if Buchanan never came up with the idea to produce manila paper, then it may have never occurred to West to attempt it. West took the manufacture of manila paper a step further and began using it to produce square-bottomed paper bags. This led to the incredible expansion and success that followed. 

Buchanan also owned a paper mill in Schuylerville that was the scene of a horrific accident. The boilers exploded causing thousands of dollars in damage and injuring dozens of people. His Pioneer Mill was destroyed by arson in 1869 and the property was later sold at auction. These events and the death of Harlow Kilmer at the Empire Mill probably caused Buchanan to leave the area entirely. His absence over the following decades meant that his actions would not be well documented. Although the evidence is sporadic, Buchanan may have been one of the most influential men in the development of new types of paper in Saratoga County. 

 

Parts of this article were excerpted from the book “Lost Industries of the Kaydeross Valley: A History of Manufacturing in Ballston Spa, New York” by Timothy Starr. The book is available for sale at the Brookside Museum in Ballston Spa.

 

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