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Henry William Sage (1814-1897)
Prominent entrepreneur and pioneer of West Bay City (Bay City).
  • by Marvin Kusmierz (November 2003)
  • Henry W. Sage

    Birth: 31 Jan 1814, Middletown, CT - Death: 1897
    Parents: Charles SAGE & Sally WILLIAMS - Siblings: 4 sisters
    Marriage: Susan Elizabeth LINN in 1840
    Children: Dean, William Henry

    Henry W. Sage contributions to this area are notable and many. The Sage Library which is now over a century old was a gift from him to the lumber town he founded along the west bank of the Saginaw River. It was the first building built solely for library purposes and is still standing today.

    The infant local lumbering business is what drew Henry to this area. He was a seasoned businessman who had gained wealth in lumbering long before his arrival here. He own vast holdings of forest lands in Wisconsin, Michigan and New York, and a sawmill in Canada.

    Henry was a hard-nosed businessman with a high sensitivity for each dollar he earned. He ran a tight ship over his businesses and the expenses associated with their operations. However, he was also a very benevolent man. His substantial gifts came with the expectation that his money would be used wisely and spent efficiently to maximize the value of his donation -- and, he maintain close oversight to assure they would.

    The largest gifts that Henry bestowed went to Cornell University. His contributions were instrumental in unversity's success during its early existence. Much of this history is well covered in 1894 biography written by John H. Selkreg. This biography also highlights Sage's early life. A reprint of this biography may be seen in the menu on this page.

    Another excellent reading source on Henry comes the work done by Anita Shafer Goldstein in her book, "Biography of a Businessman - Henry W. Sage." It is based on research she did of Henry's personal and business records which are a part of the collections held by Cornell University. The book provides not only a good understanding of Henry the person, but also of an era when industrialists collected large fortunes as the nation moved westward. This book is available from the Bay County Library system. It is also sold by some book stores.

    The focus of this writing will be primarily on the relationship between Henry Sage and the history of this community, which was nothing short of outstanding.

    Sage's Early Years

    Born in 1814, Sage was the eldest child of Charles and Sally (Williams) Sage. He was born on the farm home of his grandparents (Williams) in Middleton, Connecticut with whom his parents were living with at the time. Two years later, his parents, along with Henry and a newly born sister, moved to Bristol, Connecticut. In Bristol, Charles and Sally gave birth to another son and four daughters, but a son and a daughter were lost at birth. In 1827, facing hard times the family moved to Ithaca, New York where Sally's brothers owned a successful merchantile business. However, the move did not remedy their situation and Charles continued to struggle with finances. There was no financial help from Sally's well off brothers due to her strained relationship with them. Financial woes and lingering sickness plagued the family for a long time. Young Henry expressed his feelings of dismayed in his diary,

    "I try to look up from this mist of poverty and obsurity which at present surrounds us and to hope -- and be determined that at some future period we shall once more emerge from it and cut something of a figure in this world."

    As the only son and the eldest child, Henry bore upon himself the pressures of his family's impoverishment. It is with this background, and urgency, that Henry began his young adult life. His first opportunity came in the field of medicine under the tutorship of Dr. Austin Church. However, within a few months, he abruptly quit which he explained many years later was due to his poor eye sight! Feeling dispair at that time, young Henry wrote,

    "I am kicking about and doing nothing or at home sullenly and silently thinking of the state and prospects of our family, and of some means to extricating them from it but no way seems to present itself at present unless we have something to do."

    Good fortune finally arrive for Henry when was offered an apprenticeship in his uncles' merchantile business. Henry wound not squander this opportunity. His worked hard and long hours to learn the business. His attention to details earned him the respect of his uncles who rewarded young Henry with positions of greater responsibility within the company. Much of his income during these early years went to help his family's fiancial needs. His father continued to struggle and still wasn't able provide for basic needs of his family. A situation that ultimately strained the relation between Henry's and his father and Henry wrote about this in his diary:

    "He lacks prudence and financial wisdom. He builds 'baseless fabrics' and centers all his hopes upon them and he builds others but, learning from the experience they meet the same fate they contain elements of decay and cannot stand."

    Henry would not flounder his life away like his father -- instead, he steadfastly added to his business knowledge and learned skills bartering a "good" deal. Each step of the way earning a higher income that provided him with the means to invest in his own business enterprises.

    He entertained a number of partnerships with various associates with the lumbering businesses being his largest holding. A partnership with W.H. Grant, led to a saw mill being built at Lake Simcole, Canada. It was destroyed by fire in 1852, but not before the investment had already paid a hansome dividend. With John McGraw, and each on their own, large tracks of forest lands were purchased in New York and Wisconsin, and in Michigan. Sage owned 500,000 acres in Michigan, and was considered the state's largest private land-holder at the time.

    The Sage, McGraw & Sons Sawmill

    In 1860, Sage's attention turned to the Saginaw Valley where the beginnings of a lumber boom was well underway. Sage and McGraw wanted to build a new saw mill here, and Sage came in search of property for this purpose. He found a large wilderness area on the west side of the river across from the village of Bay City that he thought would be ideal for the new mill. At this time, Bay County had been in existence for only three years and consisted of four townships, the founding townships Williams and Hampton, and in 1859, Bangor and Portsmouth were organized. {See Township Map History.} The population of the county numbered about 3,100 with most living on the east side of the Saginaw River in the village of Bay City, and to its south, the village of Portsmouth. The property that Sage had his eye on was unsettled. To the north of it was a small settlement in Bangor and to the south an even smaller settlement of Salzburg. In between, the land was still pristine with only a couple of homesteaders residing on it. The property had been owned for a long time by James G. Birney who used it to graze cattle. When he passed on in 1857, his widow, Elizabeth (Fitzhugh) Birney inherited it.

    Obtaining the property was no easy matter. Sage met with Dr. Daniel H. Fitzhugh who was the brother of Elizabeth and handled the negotiations for sale of the property. Its not known whether the asking price was too high or Sage's offer was too low, but neither side was willing to compromise enough to accommodate an agreement. Sage would returned several times over the next two years, and each he went away without an agreement. It is written that James Fraser, a founding pioneer here, rescued the day by becoming involved with the two sides to encourage an agreement which was reached and executed in early 1864, four years after negotiations started. Sage now owned 116 acres for which he paid $20,000.

    Sage wasted no more time, with the agreement, work began that Spring the Sage McGraw Mill. The site chosen for the mill was at the foot of what is now Midland street along the river's edge. When the mill was completed in 1865, it was deemed the largest of its kind in the world. It included new dwellings for the mill's work force. These were sold to the workers at a price of $200. The mill also would have its own company store to meet the needs of the workers. It wasn't long before the company town was bustling and was given the name of Wenona.

    1872: Sage McGraw Mill looking West from East bank of river. (click to enlarge.)

    When the Sage McGraw Mill began operations, they had plenty of competition. The {1866-67 Directory of Saw Mills} lists 25 in operation in Bay County at that time. The Sage McGraw Mill produced 9,000,000 board feet the first year of operation exceeding William Peter's mill which had the second highest production at 7,200,000 board feet. Over in Saginaw, 29 mills were active with the Rust, Eaton & Co. showing the largest production at 9,453,500 board feet. The following extract from "North American Review, No. CCXX" published in July 1868 and is a part of the Library of Congress collection of historical documents gives a perspective of Michigan's lumbering community in the years that followed:

    "The whole amount of money invested in saw-mills, large and small, in all parts of the State, is estimated at more than eight millions of dollars, and the whole number of these mills is reckoned at six hundred and sixty-five. The largest, that of Sage, McGraw, & Co., at Wenona, employs one hundred and sixteen men and requires five steam-engines to work its machinery. In 1867 it sawed eighty-two thousand logs, — an average of about four hundred for each working-day."

    The Village of Wenona (West Bay City)

    Sage planned the company town well. He platted the property for family living quarters, a boarding house for singles and a company store to supply them. However, it wasn't long before new independent homesteads moved into the area along with merchants eager to tap into a growing customer base. It didn't take long for the Village of Wenona to materialize and for a post office to be established there.

    Sage's sawmill had redefined the landscape from one of wilderness into a bustling town with its own form of wildlife. A matter that Sage did not egnor. In an 1867, he wrote to his mill manager, J.G. Emery,

    "I hope your Town Government may be speedily reformed. Clean out the Liquor Shops. Shut up swine and all stray cattle so that cleanliness and sobriety may walk together. Above all -- When you pass a just and proper ordinance see that it is executed to the letter."

    Sage hired J.H. Plum to manage his store for $1,000 per year. Besides providing provisions for mill workers, it sold goods to the mill and other logging companies. Sage found him to be a good businessman and to his liking. Concerned that he may loose him -- he made him a partner in the store in 1867. A year later, Plum being an agressive businessman, attempted to eliminate the standard discount of 10% given to the mill. He felt this directly affected his own portion of store's profits. And, when Plum expanded the line of goods carried by the store for non-mill workers, Sage quickly reminded him that fancy goods should not short supplies to logging customers which represent the store's main customer base.

    Sage was able to excercised considerable control over matters involving the village. An example is cited in Anita Shafer's book dealing with room prices at boarding houses. She makes reference to a note from Sage to his mill manager, J.G. Emery, it read,

    "Don't pay Rouch 6 1/2 pr week for his board -- let him quit there and go where he can board for $5."

    Another form of leverage was very profitable for Sage. His wealth allowed him to dabble in private loans at a hansome profit, typically getting 10% interest. Some of his loan customers were Charles Babo ($6,000) and Henry Aplin ($2,400) used to build their business blocks, and George A. Allen ($1,850) for building his first grocery store.

    Sage also played a major role in getting the Jackson, Lansing and Saginaw Railroad to extend a line into Wenona. He partnered with John McGraw and Dr. Fitzhugh who acted as contractors for building the line of the railway company in return for stocks. The railway not only connected Wenona to other destinations by land, it was an important element in the mill's operation by allowing lumber to be hauled to it from the deeper forests.

    In 1877, Wenona, Banks and Salzburg merged to form West Bay City. The population of West Bay City was nearly as large as it's neighbor, Bay City, on the east side of the river. West Bay City later merged into Bay City in 1903.

    The Sage Library.

    The Liberary Journal states that Mr. H. W. Sage, of Bay City, Michigan, has announced his intention of giving that city a public library building, to coast 15,000 dollars, and of supplying it with 10,000 dollars' worht of books.
    Source: The Biblographer; A Journal of Book-lore, Vols. 1-2 (1882)

    The opening of the Sage Library on January 16, 1884, was a very special day. Many of the businesses closed for the ocassion and citizens gathered at Midland and Wenona streets for its opening. A dedication ceremony took place at the old Westminister Presbyterian Church with Moses Colt Tyler of Cornell University as the guest speaker. After the ceremony the doors of the new library were opened to the public so they could tour their manificent building.

    The library was proposed as a gift to the community three years earlier by Henry Sage in keeping with his interest in furthering the value of education. He envisioned that it should include space for a debating school where young men could gather and interact intellectually, and it did. He assured the new library's shelves would be stocked with adequate resources and covered the cost of acquiring 8,000 books for this purpose.

    The library's style of construction was quite unique and beautiful setting it apart from any similar buildings of its time, and since. Its stands today much as it did back then, except for the maturing of its grounds. Great care and caution has been taken with each updating of the building which is on the National Register of Historical Landmarks.

    There are differing historical accounts as to who actually designed the building. Local architects Pratt and Koeppe who contributed considerably to the grandeur of many local buildings, handled its construction. Charles Babcock of Cornell, a close friend of Sage is said to have come up with its design. It is most likely, that Babcock did the conceptual design of the building with Pratt and Koeppe contributing to the final plan during its construction.

    In research done by Leslie Arndt for his book, "Bay County Story - From Footpaths to Freeways", he identifies the first librarian as being Mrs. M.F. Ostrander who held the position until 1899. And, that the first floor was used by Western High School for a short period of time, and on the third floor was the school board's administration which remain there for a number years after the students had moved out.

    In 1905, Augustus H. Gansser published his book, "History of Bay County, Michigan and Representative Citizens", in which he wrote the following in reference to the Sage Library:

    "Many fortunes were made here but this library alone remains to confirm at least one of the rich lumbermen cared somewhat for posterity and had hopes to be remembered amid the scenes of his business success and life's gains. This lack of civic spirit on the part of men and families who accumulated fortunes here when they sheared the valley of its timber supply has for years been sharply felt and deplored by our communities."

    More About Sage: Financial Assets.

    The Cornell University Library has a considerable collection of Henry W. Sage's documents and these offer a deeper insight into the his many financial interests:

    "The Sage papers consists of material pertaining to his business interests, the affairs of Cornell University, and his personal interests. The major portion of the papers consists of letterpress copybooks, correspondence, ledgers, daybooks, journals, receipts, land and plat books, and other material pertaining to Sage's many business enterprises, chief among them lumbering, with his partners John McGraw and W. G. Grant; also, to timber land investments and lumber manufacturies at Bell Ewart, Ontario, Canada and Wenona (later West Bay City) Michigan; to Sage, McGraw and Company, H. W. Sage and Company, Sage Land and Improvement Company, the Michigan Salt Association, Au Gres Company, Rifle River Company, Tittabawassee Company, and Loggers Boom Company. Other papers refer to the acquisition and administration of timber lands in Michigan, Wisconsin, Alabama, Mississippi, Oregon, and California. From circa 1880, Sage invested in railroad and industrial securities; relevant papers pertain to the Wood Heustis Company, Dominick and Dickerman Company, Griswold and Gillette Company, the Atlantic Trust Company, and several other companies, including the Bank of Warsaw in New York, with regard to investments in county bonds."

    His Friend, John McGraw and Cornell University

    The following excerpt is from Cornell University Library holdings:

    According to Bishop, McGraw, who was born in Dryden Township near Ithaca, “began dealing in timber from the newly cleared countryside. The Lord prospered him. In partnership with Henry W. Sage, he bought and lumbered great tracts of land in New York, Michigan, and Wisconsin.” He participated in the founding of Cornell, donated the funding for McGraw Hall, and when the university faced potential bankruptcy in 1872, he and others advanced the funds needed to keep the institution afloat. (See page 16.)"

    Sage started out as a merchant, then he joined McGraw as a partner in the lumber trade. White called him “the second great benefactor of this institution,” and Sage provided the funding to construct both Sage Chapel and Sage Hall, endowing the latter as Sage College. This college was to be, in Sage’s own words, the means by which “instruction shall be offered to young women by the Cornell University, as broad and as thorough as that now afforded to young men.”

    The above appears in a May 2001 document entitled, "A Land-Grant University", by Michael L. Whalen, Division of Planning and Budget, Cornell University. It details a history of the university from its beginning in 1865 and makes reference to Sage, McGraw and others who were involved in its growth.

    Besides partnering with Henry on the Sage & McGraw Mill in 1869, McGraw sold his shares of the mill to Sage, and built his own on Portsmouth side of the river which equalled or exceeded the size of the Sage Mill.

    Sage and Others Memorialized at Sage Chapel.

    Sage is one of the better known historical figures in Bay City's history, this is mainly due the endurance of the Sage Library here. Some local historians paint a picture of this man as a hard task master, which he was, citing that the library was built out of the pockets of his employees.

    In today's reference, this would certainly would seem preposterous, but during his time he was among many successful men who could also be called hard taskmasters, and they , just like Sage, were instrumental in dynamically changing the lives of the people in many of communities in which they made financial investments, providing jobs at the going pay rate of that time.

    The point is, because of Sage, Bay City prospered more than it would have if he had not chosen to build his sawmill here. There was nothing sinister in the fact that he thought the community needed a Library, which offered him no personal monetary benefit.

    Sage's most generous gifts were to Cornell University, and rightfully so, as Ithaca was his hometown. Had he had chosen to live in Bay City, and gifted this community as he did at Cornell, we be praising him with great pride for his achievements, regardless of his hard taskmaster side.

    Sage is memorialized at Cornell University, where his remains are buried along with other major contributors to the university's existence. The follow is from the book, “Concerning Corney,” by Oscar Diedrich Engelin (1917) --

    Sage Chapel: Alter and Crypt room.
    “Just beyond the Barnes Hall to the north is Sage Chapel. In the Memorial Chapel which comprises part of this structure the founder of the university, Ezra Cornell and his wife are interred, as are also John McGraw and Jennie McGraw Fiske, his daughter, all notable benefactors of the institution. In the Sage Memorial Apse at the front of the building lie the mortal remains of Henry W. Sage, after whom the chapel is named, and whose gift it was to the university. His wife lies at his side. Around the walls of the chapel auditorium are many commemorative tablets. These, and the memorial windows of stained glass, constitute a Cornell roll of honor, recording for posterity the noble lives and deaths of those whom Cornell is proud to honor for distinguished association with her as students, faculty or benefactors. Because of the these records the chapel has been termed a Cornell Westminster Abby and is even so revered by Cornellians.”


    The life story of Henry Sage is one of hope for all who grew up in less than ideal conditions. It was his early years of struggle combined with a strong will that provided him with the stimulas and will to better himself as an adult. His discipline to reaching his goals and sustaining his success never wained. His wealth was shared for a good cause and never to brighten his standing in the eyes of others. To do so for Henry was to squander hard earned money foolishly. Instead, his money was given to deserving causes that nutured the improvement of others. For this, Henry W. Sage holds a special place in the history of our community as one its most prominent lumber barons and leader in developing the west side of Bay City.

    Henry Sage Pages

    Sage Library
    Midland & Wenona

    1894 Sage Bio. by J.H. Selkreg
    Related Pages:
    Carrington, Edwin T. worker
    Craft, Wilson O. worker
    Emery, Hiram A. worker
    Ingersoll, Henry S. nephew
    McGraw, John partner
    Plum, John H.
    Zabst, Wm. E. worker
    1877: Midland St. Bus. Dist.
    {1866-7: Lumber Dir.}
    1874: Wenona Directory
    1889: English Salt Trust
    1897: Death of Henry Sage
    1868: Mich. Lumber History
    People Referenced
    Allen, George A.
    Aplin, Henry
    Arndt, Leslie
    Babcock, Charles
    Babo, Charles
    Birney, James G.
    Birney (Fitzhugh), Elizabeth
    Birney, James G.
    Church, Austin (Dr.)
    DeWitt, Simeon
    Emery, J.G.
    Fiske, Daniel W.
    Fitzhugh, Daniel H. (Dr.)
    Fraser, Majes
    Gansser, Augustus H.
    Goldstein (Shafer), Anita
    Grant, W.H.
    Library of Congress
    Linn, Susan E.
    McGraw, John
    North America Review
    Ostrander, M.F. Mrs.
    Plum, J.H.
    Rust, Easton & Co.
    Sage, Charles
    Sage, Dean
    Sage, Henry W.
    Sage, William H.
    Selkreg, John H.
    Tyler, Moses C.
    Whalen, Michael L.
    Williams, Sally
    Subjects Referenced
    Atlantic Trust Co.
    Au Gres Co.
    Bank of Warsaw
    Bay City
    Bay County Library System
    Bristol, CT
    Cornell Unversity
    Dominick & Dickerman Co.
    Dryden Twsp.
    Ewart, Ont., Canada
    Female Albany Academy
    Griswold & Gillette Co.
    Hampton Twsp.
    H.W. Sage & Co.
    Ithaca, NY
    Jackson, Lansing & Saginaw RR
    Lake Simcole, Canada
    Loggers Boom Co.
    Lumbering industry
    Merchantile business
    Michigan Salt Co.
    Middletwon, CT
    New York
    Rifle River Co.
    Sage Land & Improvement Co.
    Sage College
    Sage Library
    Sage & McGraw Sawmill
    Saginaw River
    Saginaw Valley
    Tittabawassee Co.
    Village of Banks
    Village of Salzburg
    Village of Wenona
    West Bay City
    Western High School
    Williams Peter's Mill
    Williams Twsp.
    Wood Heustis Co.
    Susan (Linn) Sage
    Susan Linn Sage
    Susan Linn Sage

    Susan Linn and Henry Sage were married in 1840. They had two sons, Dean born in 1841 and William Henry born in 1844.

    Susan was educated at the Female Albany Academy. Her father, William Linn, was a lawyer. He moved to Ithaca, N.Y. in 1812 to work as an agent for his brother-in-law, Simeon DeWitt, the original proprietor of village of Ithaca.

    Susan at times accompanied Henry on business trips. She would set up a "second home" at locations where Henry spent a considerable amount of his time, and where she could be with him. She had no interest in lumbering other than the good life it brought them. During the 1850s, they lived many months in Canada where Henry attended to a new sawmill.
    Grandson - Henry M. Sage
    Henry M., the son of Dean and Sarah (Manning) Sage, became a prominent citizen of Albany continuing in the footsteps of his father and grandfather associated with lumbering. Born on May 18, 1868, he was educated at the Albany Academy and at Yale University graduating in 1890. He was an executive officer of the Sage Land & Improvement Co., No. 33 State St., Albany - which owned timber land in Michigan, Alabama, and California.
  • Source: [History of NY Bios.]
  • John McGraw


    Birth Place: Dryden, NY.
    Parents: Joseph & ? (Nelson) McGraw.
    Spouses: Rhoda Southworth, Nancy A. Southworth & Jane P Turner.
    Daughter: Jennie (Fiske)

    A close friend and frequent partner of Henry Sage, he also had a humble beginning and went on to become a millionaire through his lumbering interests. While he partnered with Henry in building the Sage & McGraw Mill, he later sold his interest to Henry and builit a new mill on the east back of the river near 22nd st.
  • [McGraws of Irish Settlement]
  • Book by Anita Goodstein
    Book cover.
    Brief comments describing contents of this book by [www.RyaboasBookseller.com] where it may be purchased online.

    "(Sage), Goodstein, Anita Shafer, BIOGRAPHY OF A BUSINESSMAN: HENRY W. SAGE, 1814-1897, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, (1962), 279pp, good, green cloth (no dustjacket), inscribed by author on ffep, Henry Williams Sage was both a lumber baron and a trustee of Cornell University, and he worked with equal vigor in each capacity. His life is reflective of the times in which the "captains of industry" accepted trusteeships as a tribute to their ability, as a duty owned to society, but rarely as a justification for lives dedicated to profit seeking. On the other hand, a primary reason for the dominance of the business personality in the nineteenth century was the immediacy of economic opportunity., (Order No: 16218 )"
    Article Sources
    (Tip: Some of the online documents referenced below are lengthy, use your browser's "Find" to locate section related to a specific person or subject.)
    Sage Hall images courtesy of John Sun.
    Bay County Story, From Footpaths to Freeways
    - (1982) book, Leslie E. Arndt.
    History of Bay County, Michigan with Illustrations & Biographical Sketches
    - (1883) book, H.R. Page & Co.
    History of Bay County, Michigan and Representative Citizens
    - (1905) book, Augustus H. Gansser.
    Landmarks of Thomkins County (New York)
    - By John H. Selkrey, 1894, contents page, ref. Sages, McGraw and many others.
    - Autobiography of Andrew Dickson White, ref. to Cornell Unversity, Sage, McGraw & others.
    - Brief Sage bio., ref. to father & grandfather.
    Cornell University Chronicle - Story of McGraw Tower, ref. John McGraw's daughter, Jennie and role of Sage.
    Legacies of Isabell County's Early Indian Res.
    - CMU, Clarke Library, ref. to Sages holdings.
    Yale Divinity School
    - Lyman Beecher Lectureship on Preaching, a gift from Sage, ref. Sage's time in Brooklyn.
    Wisconsin Land Records:
    - Held by Henry Sage
    - Held by John McGraw
    Internet Resources
    Sage's Business Records Discription and listing of holdings at Cornell University.
    Sage's home in Ithaca, NY.
    -- Cornell University
    Sage Hall - Ithaca, NY.
    -- Cornell Univ./The Johnson School
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