As students and parents gather at the town hall in Peterburgh, N.Y. (pop. 1,563), Fred Polnisch gets into character as Uncle Sam, donning a red, white and blue top hat, tails and striped trousers.
Then, in story and song, Polnisch brings American history to life, carrying the audience along on Paul Revere’s ride in 1775, and to the deck of a ship where Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the Star Spangled Banner.
Polnisch, of Clifton Park, N.Y. (pop. 32,995), has been wearing the colorful suit during performances at school and civic functions since retiring as a General Electric engineer in 1992.
Of course, Polnisch is best prepared to explain that a real Uncle Sam did exist, although not as he’s known today. It is believed that the name originated from Sam Wilson, a well-liked meat packing business owner in Troy, N.Y. (pop. 49,170).
“Many of Sam Wilson’s nephews and nieces worked for him and called him Uncle Sam,” Polnisch says. “From what I’ve read, many of the workers and residents called him that, too.”
Wilson, who had a contract to supply food for troops in the United States Army during the War of 1812, would stamp his barrels with “U.S.” Troops from New York, who knew of Wilson’s nickname, passed around the story that Uncle Sam supplied the food. Eventually, the name became synonymous with the federal government.
Later the patriotic character was brought to life by newspaper cartoonists, who wrapped Uncle Sam in a flag, then in a star-spangled coat and striped pants, and finally gave him a beard to honor President Abraham Lincoln. Uncle Sam took on his most famous image when he graced “I Want You” military recruiting posters during World War I.
Polnisch, 68, concludes each 45-minute program by enlisting the audience to join him in a rousing chorus of It’s a Grand Old Flag.
“He reaches out to every age group, and that’s not an easy thing to do,” says Susan Nelsen, an events coordinator for the Petersburgh Library Summer Reading Program.
“I feel that I am promoting the American way,” says Polnisch, who uses the American icon as a way to educate people around Troy about their link to history.
In fact, Sam Wilson (1766-1854) is buried in the town, and since 1961 Troy has been acknowledged, by an act of Congress, as the official birthplace of Uncle Sam. The town even holds an annual Uncle Sam Day Parade in September. “It’s scheduled for the second Sunday of September so that it falls around Wilson’s birthday, Sept. 13,” says Polnisch, a Philadelphia native.
It was during the 1992 parade that Polnisch first portrayed the local icon. It began when fellow members of his Uncle Sam Barbershop Chorus asked him to dress up as Uncle Sam for the event. “I had the tall, lanky build for it,” he says. Since then, Polnisch has eased his way into character, growing out his beard and making his own colorful costumes.
In all, he has performed at hundreds of school and civic events—charging a small fee—as far away as Guam, Texas, California and Quebec. Still, the bulk of his shows are for children in the New York school districts. He even offers kids a 32-page book, titled Uncle Sam, My Story, that he wrote in 2000. “It’s an edited version of the presentation I make at schools,” he says.
According to Ciel Buschele, a PTA
parent who booked Polnisch for two shows at the Queensbury, N.Y.
(pop. 25,441), school programs, “He’s a real-life historical figure standing there, telling them what
happened. He is history come to life, and the kids love it.”
“It’s always a good idea to expose the students to patriotism,” says Queensbury Elementary School Principal Patrick Pomerville. “It gets them thinking about where and how it all began.”
For Polnisch, that’s what it’s all about. “I want to get kids to realize American values, the beliefs of our country . . . those of Washington, Jefferson, Adams,” he says. “That’s what I feel my mission is.”