Just in time for the Fourth of July, a nearly four-story piece of Americana has returned to Danbury in the form of a 38-foot fiberglass statue of Uncle Sam. It was erected in May, on the outskirts of downtown in front of the Danbury Railway Museum. Taller than nearby trees and city lights, it has given the entrance to downtown a new quirky roadside attraction and brought with it decades’ worth of nostalgia.
The Uncle Sam statue stood outside an entrance to the Danbury Fair, the city’s huge annual agricultural event, from the late 1960s or early 1970s — no one is sure exactly when the statue went up — until the fair’s final season in 1981. When the fair closed, the statue was bought by Jack Gillette, owner of the Magic Forest amusement park in Lake George, New York. It had been a striking feature of the amusement park for the past 36 years, but when the park changed hands over the winter, Danbury’s mayor, Mark Boughton, arranged to have the statue purchased for $50,000.
“There were other communities interested in him,” Boughton says. “Troy, New York, was interested in him.”
While Troy didn’t have any connection to the statue itself, the community has some claim to Uncle Sam in general. By some accounts, the inspiration for Uncle Sam was Samuel Wilson, a Troy meat supplier who shipped goods to U.S. troops during the War of 1812. This is disputed, as the song “Yankee Doodle,” written several decades before 1812, references an Uncle Sam. (“Yankee Doodle” was designated Connecticut’s official state song in 1978.)
Ultimately, Danbury won out, and the city got the statue back. Boughton is thrilled. “[It’s] an iconic piece of art history and is a national personification of America and the United States,” he says, adding that it will help the city establish that “sense of place” which can be so important to community pride and downtown revitalization efforts.
The statue was one of many oversize statues that used to dot the fairgrounds, says John “Jack” Stetson, co-author of The Life and Times of The Great Danbury State Fair. Stetson’s grandfather, John Leahy, bought the Great Danbury State Fair in the 1940s and Stetson is its former vice president.
Stetson can’t recall when his grandfather obtained the Uncle Sam statue. “It may have been purchased used, it may have been purchased new. He bought things both ways,” he says.
Stetson never thought it would return to Danbury. “I thought it probably was too fragile after being out in the weather and obviously uncared for for 30 years. The models that we had at the fairgrounds were refurbished and remodeled constantly,” he says.
Many in the Danbury area remember seeing the statue at the fair and there are also many who remember seeing it in Lake George on vacations. At the amusement park it was billed as the “largest” Uncle Sam statue in the world. It’s a claim that has been repeated by some in Danbury but may not be accurate. According to Mental Floss, there’s a 42-foot Uncle Sam statue in Michigan.
No one was quibbling over a few feet on a recent afternoon shortly after the statue was erected. Drivers looked out the window as they rode, smiling and pointing up at it. Even this writer’s misguided attempt to snap a photo from the road was met with laughter and a driver who gave a thumbs-up, rather than angry honks.
“It’s delightful to have it back in Danbury and I think all Danbury people that are old-timers remember that, and it’s a fond reminder of the fair,” Stetson says.
For those of us who never saw it before, it’s just plain cool.