For Ballston Spa Life
ROCK CITY FALLS — Just a few years after English-born entrepreneur George West moved to here, the little hamlet had become one of the most important paper manufacturing centers in the country.
After spending a
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 neighbor 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
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 50 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 50 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
reporter John Bulkeley visited the
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
For about 10
West added to his
paper empire by purchasing two mills in Middle Grove,
Pioneer Mill in
A year later,
West refitted one of the former Hovey mills into a
modern bag factory and moved all bag-making operations
portions of the Empire Mill still stand, along with the
stone foundations of the Excelsior Mill and his 23-room
mansion that now serves as a bed and breakfast inn.
“The Paper Bag King: A Biography of George West” is due to be released by Timothy Starr in the fall.