WW II veteran wants memorial in Troy, N.Y., the `Home of Uncle Sam'
Friday, July 4th 2003, 12:00 am
News On 6
TROY, N.Y. (AP) _ He was an entrepreneur in this Hudson River city who evolved into the lanky, bearded man in a red-white-and-blue suit. Americans call him ``Uncle'' and people worldwide recognize him as a symbol of the USA.
But the city that calls itself the ``Home of Uncle Sam'' contains few clues about Samuel Wilson. People in the visitor center who ask about Wilson are merely pointed to his well-kept grave and given a pamphlet penned and paid for by a World War II veteran who wants to do more.
``He's our symbol. It's mind-boggling something wasn't done,'' said George Jacques III, 79, who fought at Iwo Jima. ``It would be a tremendous tourism attraction, if we had something to show.''
Born in Menotomy (now Arlington), Mass., Wilson moved to Troy in 1789 with one of his 12 siblings and started a brickyard, which made the materials for the city's first courthouse and jail. He opened a meatpacking business in 1793 and shipped beef and produce _ grown in his orchards _ down the Hudson in his sloops.
Wilson, a city and church leader and employer of 200 people, was known as ``Uncle Sam.''
During the War of 1812, he was contracted to supply meat to troops in New York and New Jersey. When soldiers stationed down the road in Greenbush saw ``U.S.'' stamped on the sides of Wilson's wood barrels, they joked that it stood for Uncle Sam. Most had never considered the initials of their new nation, or so the story goes.
Wilson died July 30, 1854, at age 88, but artists made his nickname forever synonymous with the U.S. Best known for creating the icon are political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who drew a long-limbed, bearded Uncle Sam in the late 1800s, and James Montgomery Flagg, painter of the World War I recruiting poster with a pointing, red-white-and-blue-clad Uncle Sam, eyes blazing, and the words ``I want you for U.S. Army.''
In 1961, Congress passed a resolution declaring Wilson the forefather of the Uncle Sam symbol. A decade later, the home where Wilson died _ his third and the last still standing in Troy _ was demolished.
A historical marker near the Hudson tells where Wilson kept his sloops, but a bridge ramp hides it from view.
``There's just nothing left,'' said Fred Polnisch, 67, of Clifton Park, who recently joined Jacques' quest. ``It would be neat to have something to go and see about Uncle Sam.''
Jacques, who retired in 1984 from the Watervliet Arsenal, decided three years ago that Troy needed an Uncle Sam museum to draw tourists.
``This thing must be done,'' he said. ``It's just got a hold on me.''
As part of his research, Jacques traveled to Arlington, Mass., and Mason, N.H., where Wilson lived with his family before moving to Troy. His boyhood home in Mason still stands.
Jacques, a former draftsman, designed a 4,000-square-foot Uncle Sam Memorial and Veteran's Hall of Valor, then built a scale model displayed in the front window of Troy Pub & Brewery.
Jacques spent $860 printing 2,500 brochures, with a map of 10 ``points of interest'' and a timeline of Wilson's life. The brochure is a city first, said Thomas Carroll, executive director of the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway, which runs the Troy visitor center.
``We get a steady trickle of people wanting to come here and find out about Uncle Sam,'' he said. ``I'd love to see more Uncle Sam things here. But there are only so many hours in a day and dollars in a wallet.''
Jacques' model would cost more than $500,000 to build, according to an April 2002 estimate. Half a dozen people have joined an association he formed to raise money.
Artifacts from Wilson's life do exist. The Rensselaer County Historical Society owns a handful of items _ such as bricks and chamber pots _ found in an archaeological dig at Wilson's last home that it displays every September around his birthday. And the First Baptist Church, where Wilson served as trustee, has his ledger.
``That's the problem. There's not enough stuff to build a whole museum,'' said Kathy Sheehan, of the historical society.
An Uncle Sam museum would have to concentrate on how Wilson evolved into the symbol, and the State Museum in Albany already has a collection of the ``iconic stuff,'' she said.
``But I support George,'' she added. ``God bless him if he can find somebody to come up with the money.''