Clifton Park man spreads Uncle Sam story and spirit

Dressed as Uncle Sam, Fred Polnisch works the crowd during the Flag Day parade along Route 50 in Burnt Hills in 2013.

PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHERDressed as Uncle Sam, Fred Polnisch works the crowd during the Flag Day parade along Route 50 in Burnt Hills in 2013. PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

By Kassie Parisi

Gazette Reporter

CLIFTON PARK — A patriotic special guest made an appearance at the Fourth of July parade in town.

Uncle Sam, or rather, the local man who portrays Uncle Sam, marched in this year’s parade alongside musicians and town officials.

Fred Polnisch, who has lived in Clifton Park for over 30 years, has become locally and internationally known as New York’s own Uncle Sam. Previously employed at General Electric, Polnisch now spends his time dressed up as Uncle Sam, traveling all around the country to march in parades and to give performances that detail the history of the real-life man thought to be the basis for the well-known figure on the United State army recruitment posters.

“I just love doing it,” Polnisch said about his longtime passion.

To lend authenticity to his performance, Polnisch dons a stars and striped top hat and suit, along with a bushy white beard.

But Polnisch’s Uncle Sam career is multifaceted — as well as giving school performances, he sings with the Uncle Sam Chorus, which participates in around 15 to 20 parades each year. He has also written a book for elementary aged students, called “Our Star Spangled Uncle Sam.” Finally, he serves on the board of directors for the Uncle Sam Memorial Foundation.

The goal, Polnisch said, is to try to raise awareness of the man behind Uncle Sam, who was a Capital Region resident.

The man popularly credited with serving as the real-life inspiration behind Uncle Sam is Samuel Wilson, who was a meat packer in Troy. Dressed up as Uncle Sam, Polnisch tells a first-person version of the story in which Wilson, looking to set up a career for himself, moved to Troy, due its proximity to the Hudson River.

Wilson moved from New  Hampshire at age 22 with his older brother, Ebeneezer. According to Polnisch, the two brothers made the journey on foot, and the family followed as the meat-packing business took off.

Then, during the war of 1812, Wilson was appointed meat inspector for the Northern Army. His duties as inspector included inspecting meat to make sure it was fresh, as well as making sure that it was properly packaged. Each barrel required a label, and was marked “U.S.” The meat then went to soldiers, many of whom were natives of Troy and were familiar with Wilson, whose nickname was already “Uncle Sam” from younger family members.

The soldiers, said Polnisch, made an association between the “U.S.” stamp and the name Uncle Sam, and the name soon became synonymous with the overall army. Wilson is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Troy.

Despite the role he purportedly played in U.S. history, Wilson and the Uncle Sam phenomenon, Polnisch said, isn’t a topic commonly addressed in schools, even in Troy. Polnisch isn’t sure why more people aren’t interested in the history, but feels that it’s his duty to keep telling the story, as often as he can. He has lobbied to get informational posters about Uncle Sam in various hotels and other locations around the Capital District.

“It’s to show that Uncle Sam was a real person, and this is what he did,” Polnisch said, as to why he continues to tell Wilson’s story.

Polnisch’s efforts aren’t just for the sake of educating children. He also gives the performance to seniors, and has traveled to many different countries, including Canada.

“Getting them to laugh with me, getting them to have fun,” Polnisch said, when asked what his favorite part of the Uncle Sam job is.

Even though Polnisch is approaching 26 years of Uncle Sam, he doesn’t have any plans to retire soon. Earlier in the spring, he was abroad in Russia, and then in California. He was home for the parade over the weekend, but then towards the end of July, he will be taking off again, this time to Nashville for a week for a barbershop choir seminar at Belmont University. When he returns, he will be heading for yet another parade.

“I really want to continue with everything,” he said. “I love being busy like this!”