The Ballston Journal
Biography tells the story of the "PAPER BAG KING"
The Ballston Journal
Among Ballston Spa’s most famous citizens is “Paper Bag King” George West, who at one time manufactured more paper bags in his mills along the Kayaderosseras Creek than any other person in the country. A biography of the industrialist and statesman was recently completed by local author Timothy Starr.
George West was a larger-than-life personality in the village during the late 1800s. When he wasn’t in Washington, D.C. fulfilling his duties as Congressman, West was commonly seen at the north end of the village engaged in his lucrative business enterprises. His mansion on the corner of Milton Avenue and Prospect Street was within walking distance of his Union Mill, Island Mill, Glen Mill, and Bag Factory. Up the river were his other mills, all producing manila paper to make his famous paper bags.
Starr’s research uncovered how West was able to become so successful in such a short period of time. Part of it had to do with being in the right place at the right time, but it could not have been done without his keen business sense and hard work.
After purchasing his first paper mill in Rock City Falls, West decided to manufacture paper bags at a time when most carrying bags were made from cotton. For a couple of years his paper bags were made by hand at a shop in Ballston Spa.
As demand for the bags steadily increased, he sought ways to dramatically increase his output. It just so happened that the man who invented the first successful paper bag machine, Francis Wolle, was establishing a company called the Union Paper Bag Machine Company. Its only purpose was to buy and defend patents.
West and several other bag manufacturers joined the company at its formation. Each contributed funds to the company in exchange for the rights to all of its patents. In addition, they all agreed to split the country into market segments so that they did not compete with each other.
This proved to be a virtual goldmine for West. He was parceled out the huge New England market, including New York City. All of the latest and most effective machine patents were at his disposal, and were quickly installed in his original bag factory at Rock City Falls. Probably few people knew what it meant at the time, but when the Ballston Journal reported that “several of the latest Union machines” were being delivered at the bag factory, it was a reference to West’s powerful consortium of bag manufacturers.
Soon he was turning out bags by the millions. The new machines created the so-called Self-Opening Satchel bags that grocers grew to love. Because his paper bags were so much cheaper than cotton sacks, demand soared.
Profits began to pour in at an astounding rate. West decided to expand his operations and either built or acquired one mill after another along the Kayaderosseras Creek until a dozen were under his ownership. By 1880 he was producing more bags than anyone else in the country.
West’s fame was not limited to his status as one of the country’s great industrialists. After several terms in the New York State Assembly, he was elected to three terms in the US House of Representatives. He was also one of the area’s greatest philanthropists, donating the equivalent of millions of dollars to a variety of causes, including the soldiers’ monuments in Ballston Spa and Schuylerville and a museum in Round Lake. When he died in 1901 he left a fortune that today would be worth nearly $75 million.
Any fan of Saratoga County history will find “The Paper Bag King” a fascinating read. The book transports readers back to a time when this area was a manufacturing powerhouse and men like West were greatly respected and universally known by every citizen. It features many passages from the time period, such as verbatim speeches made by West and a first-hand account of one of his mills. There are also chapters about his little-known early life in England and Massachusetts.
The book had been in the development stage for some time, but Starr received fresh incentive to finish it when he met the great, great grandson of West’s daughter, Douglass “Tim” Mabee of Saratoga Springs. Mabee provided the extensive family tree found in the appendix as well as other valuable help.The new book is now available for sale at the Brookside Museum, home to the Saratoga County Historical Society, where Starr is Treasurer of the Board of Trustees.