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Selling Uncle Sam

Arlington resident urges town to market its famous native son

Laurence McKinney with his Samuel Wilson gear. Laurence McKinney with his Samuel Wilson gear. (Chitose Suzuki for The Boston Globe)
By Brock Parker
Globe Correspondent / May 6, 2010

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He’s an American icon who over the course of 200 years has morphed into a cartoon character known for his patriotism, tall hat, and brusque war-time declaration of “I want you.’’

But the original Uncle Sam was also a real person named Samuel Wilson, born in what is now Arlington, and Laurence McKinney believes if the town can find a way to celebrate the softer side of its native son, it could lead to a windfall.

“Nobody owns Smokey the Bear, but we own Uncle Sam,’’ said McKinney, who lives in Arlington. “We can make money off of this fellow. He’s not going to mind.

“Everybody likes Uncle Sam. There couldn’t be a better ambassador for America, except maybe Elvis Presley.’’

McKinney, 65, is chairman of the town-appointed Uncle Sam Committee, with just $321 in its budget but big ideas about how Arlington can market its ties to Uncle Sam.

A graduate of Harvard Business School, McKinney is asking Town Meeting this spring to appropriate $2,500 to fund a market study and prepare prototypes of Uncle Sam memorabilia that the town can sell.

By marketing Arlington as the “home of the real Uncle Sam’’ and putting the slogan on items such as T-shirts, McKinney said, the town could make $50,000 to $75,000 a year.

But in a year when Arlington is facing deep budget cuts, and the school district is planning to cut the equivalent of more than 40 teaching positions and lay off all of its crossing guards, McKinney said he knows that getting even a few thousand dollars to invest in Uncle Sam memorabilia might be difficult.

Arlington’s Finance Committee is not supporting his proposal, and some selectmen say the idea should wait until next year, after a new tourism committee has been launched.

But McKinney said he thinks Arlington needs to seize the opportunity to make money off of Uncle Sam before other communities do.

Samuel Wilson was born in 1766 in what today is Arlington, but at the time was part of Cambridge. He moved to New Hampshire when he was still a boy, and became known as Uncle Sam during the War of 1812 when he was a meat-packer in Troy, N.Y.

George Jacques III, who founded the Uncle Sam Memorial Foundation Inc. in Troy and wrote a book, “The Life and Times of Uncle Sam,’’ said Wilson’s nickname came about while he was supplying meat to the US Army.

Wilson labeled the barrels of meat he was supplying to the Army with the initials US, but the abbreviation for United States was still a new phenomenon and not widely recognized. Some soldiers who knew Samuel Wilson began to joke that the letters “US’’ on the containers stood for Uncle Sam, and that’s how the legend was born, Jacques said.

“Nobody really knows about it,’’ Jacques said of Wilson’s story. “They think he’s a cartoon.’’

Wilson died in Troy in 1854, and the city still celebrates Uncle Sam with a parade, a tour, and an exhibition at City Hall, Jacques said.

But he also said he believes it is a good idea for Arlington to sell memorabilia celebrating its role as the birthplace of Uncle Sam.

“They should because this story should be told,’’ Jacques said. “It’s quite a story.’’

McKinney said that over the years Uncle Sam’s image came to represent America, and it has continued to evolve. In the late 19th century images of a bearded Uncle Sam became popularized, and during World War I the image became associated with the famous recruiting-poster declaration, “I want you — for the US Army.’’

McKinney said he believes Uncle Sam has been overused, but Arlington could shift the spotlight back to Samuel Wilson and “breathe a little life into someone who really was alive.’’

Richard Duffy, a local historian and cochairman of Arlington’s Historical Commission, said the town does honor Uncle Sam with a large statue near Samuel Wilson’s birthplace, not far from the Minuteman Bikeway in Arlington Center.

But Duffy said it could be difficult for the town to do much more to honor Uncle Sam, since Wilson moved to New Hampshire when he was between 10 and 15 years old, and the home where Wilson was born is long gone. Duffy speculates that the home may have been torn down when a path was cleared for a railroad in the 1840s. The railroad has now been transformed into the bicycle path.

“The thing about Uncle Sam is there is not a house he lived in you can visit,’’ Duffy said. “In the absence of that kind of draw, I don’t see opportunities to promote Uncle Sam extensively.’’

Selectwoman Clarissa Rowe said there will be an opportunity to draw more attention to Uncle Sam’s ties to Arlington with the development of the Battle Road Scenic Byway, a plan being developed by Arlington, Lexington, Lincoln, and Concord to preserve and promote the 21-mile route that tells the story of the historic events that started the Revolutionary War on April 19, 1775.

One of the bloodiest battles that day was in Arlington, and Rowe said it, and other historic sites in the town, including the birthplace of Samuel Wilson, can be highlighted along the byway.

“I think Arlington is ripe for doing more with our Colonial history,’’ Rowe said.

But she said she agrees with the town’s Finance Committee that McKinney’s ideas to promote Uncle Sam should wait until a coordinated effort can be launched.

McKinney said he knows his effort to get money from Town Meeting is a long shot, but he believes that Arlington has an asset that it should use.

This spring’s Town Meeting has already started, and McKinney’s proposal is expected to be tackled in the coming weeks.

“I don’t know if I’m going to get a penny, but I’m going to try.’’

Brock Parker can be e-mailed at brock.globe@gmail.com.

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