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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Senator James Arkell

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[This information is from Vol. III, pp. 22-26 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

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Portrait of James Arkell

Portrait: James Arkell

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The title of senator always seems fittingly associated with the name of James Arkell, Canajoharie's most eminent citizen. Although Mr. Arkell served only one term as a legislator, in the senate of the state of New York, yet the name seems naturally to suggest and exemplify his public-spirited and progressive character.

The unusual business ability and broad vision of Senator Arkell are largely responsible for the material prosperity and spiritual vitality of the famous little town of Canajoharie, which he may be truly said to have made nationally famous. Indeed, so closely are Senator Arkell and Canajoharie associated that one cannot visualize this model, progressive American industrial community without calling to mind the sturdy figure and the keen and kindly personality of the town's most noted citizen. James Arkell came of an ancient English family. He was born in Oxford, England, October 16, 1829. His parents were William and Mary Arkell, who came to America, in 1841, and located on a farm to the east of Canajoharie village, now known as the Arkell farm.

James Arkell was educated in the Canajoharie school and academy. On leaving school, at first he went into the insurance business and later took up farming. At an early day Mr. Arkell developed marked literary ability. While working on his farm James Arkell was a frequent contributor to the Canajoharie Radii, then conducted by Levi Backus, a well known deaf-mute. In 1863 James Arkell and L. F. Allen bought the Radii from Mr. Backus. In 1866 Mr. Arkell sold his interest to Angell Matthewson, and in 1868 the latter sold out to Mr. Allen, who continued to conduct the newspaper until his death.

Senator Arkell was the father of the paper sack industry. In 1859 he became interested in the manufacture and printing of flour bags. Adam and Benjamin Smith, dry goods merchants of Canajoharie, became associated with Mr. Arkell in this business, under the firm name of Arkell & Smiths. In 1859 James Arkell printed his first bags on a hand press in the Radii printing office, then located in the stone building which stood in front of the main building of the Beech-Nut Packing Company up to 1924. In the latter year this building was taken down and its stone used in constructing the Canajoharie Library James Arkell Memorial building, erected by his son, Bartlett Arkell. This transformation of the materials of the old building, in which Senator Arkell started business, into a structure largely devoted to intellectual and spiritual aims, is symbolic of the spirit of the man who aided in developing the spiritual life of his community through the means of successful business enterprises.

When the Civil war came the supply of cotton ceased and the price of cotton cloth rose to a point far beyond any possibility of its use in the manufacture of bags. The new firm was sorely pressed for a time, but Mr. William Arkell, father of James Arkell, came to the aid of the young business men. Fortunate purchases of cotton put the company on a solid financial basis. However, it became necessary to find a substitute for the standard cotton bag, and the natural inventive genius of James Arkell soon asserted itself. He experimented until he had perfected a manila paper sack which had both the strength and the durability of the best cotton bag. At first Mr. Arkell had great difficulty in introducing the paper sack to the trade, but his untiring energy, determination and business ability soon made his product a commercial success. As the result of his experiments and inventive ability, Senator Arkell was granted thirty-two patents for the manufacture of paper bags. Among his inventions were the satchel paper bag, which dates from 1865, the soft tie bag, the white enamel bag, and the stretchable bag. Most of the bag making processes and machinery, such as the bottom and side pasters and the enameling machine, were the outcome of Mr. Arkell's very remarkable inventive ability.

Arkell & Smiths built a large factory on Mill street and the firm became the leaders in the manufacture and printing of paper and cotton bags. At first these sacks were printed in one color from type, but the demand for variety and the use of trade-mark designs soon compelled the company to produce multi-colored printed bags in a great variety of styles and designs. The printing equipment was greatly increased and a designing, engraving and electrotyping department was installed.

In 1873 an explosion of gas wrecked a part of the factory, set fire to the plant and completely destroyed it. One employe was killed and several were severely injured. Senator Arkell's son, William J. Arkell, was so badly burned that his condition was critical for a considerable time. His brave fight for life and eventual recovery are part of the cherished traditions of Canajoharie. The ruin of the plant was so complete that, for a time, Senator Arkell considered removing the business to Niagara Falls, which was much nearer to the plants of the milling industry which then included most of the customers of Arkell & Smiths. Mrs. Arkell's pleas for a continuance of the business in Canajoharie finally prevailed, and a larger and more modern factory was erected on the site. Many additions and improvements have been made to this plant, and today Arkell & Smiths have the finest sack making and printing works in the world.

While Senator Arkell was not directly interested in the formation of the Beech-Nut Packing Company, it may be truly said to be an outcome of the general business development of Canajoharie which he inaugurated.

Senator Arkell took a prominent part in the political, public and social life of his day. He was an active member of the republican party and occupied a prominent position in the councils of the progressive element of that political organization. Senator Arkell seconded his son, William J. Arkell, in his several publishing enterprises, which included the Albany Evening Journal, Judge and Leslie's Weekly. The interesting little figure of the "Judge" conferring with the wise old owl, which was the trade-mark of that famous humorous weekly, was a kindly caricature of Senator Arkell's face and figure. Through the nation-wide circulation of that periodical, the Senator's features probably became more widely known than those of any other man in America.

Senator Arkell was widely read and thoroughly informed on questions of American life, politics and finance. He was a ready and forceful writer and contributed a number of articles to Leslie's Weekly. He suggested many of the famous political cartoons that appeared in Judge, which were the product of the pencil of his son-in-law, Bernhard Gillam. Senator Arkell's ready wit and his native rock-bottom philosophy made him in great demand as a speaker. While his speeches were frequently punctuated with humorous stories and good-natured fun, yet he could be eloquent and powerful in his addresses as the occasion demanded.

In 1883 James Arkell was elected senator from the eighteenth senatorial district, in which office he made a brilliant record. He was in touch with many of the foremost men of his day. President Grant and President Harrison were both his personal friends. Mr. Arkell was a leading spirit in the construction of the Mount McGregor railroad. When the great Union commander was stricken with his mortal illness, Senator Arkell invited him to his summer home atop Mount McGregor. On this summit, overlooking the vast Adirondack wilderness, General Grant wrote the last of his biography and subsequently passed away.

Senator Arkell traveled widely, had an extended acquaintance and numbered the most noted men of America among his friends. Nevertheless, his dearest connections lay in the Mohawk valley and in his own home town of Canajoharie. Its interests were his interests, its welfare was his welfare, and he worked unceasingly to make it a fine town in which to live — and to learn. Senator Arkell was always an ardent worker for the cause of education. As the editor of the Canajoharie Radii he was one of the strongest advocates of our present public school system, which was only put into effect in the closing year of his editorship — 1866. For many years James Arkell was a school trustee and labored unremittingly for the advancement of the educational interests of Canajoharie. He was largely instrumental in the construction of the present handsome stone school building.

Senator Arkell had a marked aesthetic side to his nature. In 1877 the once famous Tile Club of New York made a tour of the Erie canal in a canal-boat, sketching and making merry on the way. They were entertained by Mr. and Mrs. James Arkell at Canajoharie, and their stay there had later unusual artistic results. Among the noted artists who navigated the old Erie was Edward Gay, the famous American landscape painter. He returned to paint scenes in the picturesque valley of the Mohawk at Canajoharie. One of these is the large painting of Canajoharie Falls which adorns the lobby of the Hotel Wagner at Canajoharie. Another notable canvas is entitled "Farm Slopes of the Mohawk Valley". It is now the property of Mr. Bartlett Arkell and hangs in his New York city home. This perfect masterpiece is the finest and most characteristic Mohawk valley landscape ever painted. Mrs. James Arkell selected the viewpoint, to the east of the village, from which this beautiful picture was made. Its middle foreground depicts the fields of the Arkell homestead farm.

In 1888 Senator and Mrs. Arkell built their beautiful stone home of East Hill in Canajoharie. Mrs. Arkell selected many of the boulders from which the stones of the walls were cut, from the fields about the village. This is now the attractive home of Mr. and Mrs. Frank E. Barbour. With its picturesque grounds it forms one of the beauty spots of the Mohawk valley.

James Arkell married Sarah Hall Bartlett, July 23, 1853. Mrs. Arkell was born September 18, 1835. She was the daughter of Ebenezer Bartlett and Elizabeth (Philip) Bartlett of Massachusetts, and the granddaughter of Joshua and Sarah Bartlett of Blanford, Massachusetts. Mrs. James Arkell's mother, Elizabeth Philip Bartlett, was the daughter of William Philip and Elizabeth Ostrander.

Mrs. James Arkell was always the helpful companion of her husband, in both his business and public life. She was devoted to the interests of Canajoharie and was an ardent member of the Reformed church and prominently identified with all its activities. Her dearest interests were in her home, which she beautified materially as a natural homemaker and spiritually as a loving wife and mother. Senator Arkell always maintained that he owed much of his success to the sympathetic support and counsel of Sarah Hall Arkell. The children of James Arkell and Sarah Hall (Bartlett) Arkell are: William James, Bartlett, Mary F. (Mrs. Edward B. Burnap), Laura (Mrs. J. C. Ilse), and Burtelle (Mrs. F. E. Barbour).

James Arkell died in Canajoharie, on August 12, 1902, aged seventy-two years. Sarah Hall Arkell, his wife, died in Canajoharie, on February 28, 1911. Together, these two comrades, who served Canajoharie so faithfully in both material and spiritual ways, lie side by side in the beautiful Canajoharie Falls cemetery, overlooking the village which was the scene of their mutual life, labors and happiness.

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