Uncle Sam's Voyage: How A Danbury Icon Found Its Way Back Home
Ever wonder exactly how Danbury ended up back in possession of that enormous Uncle Sam statue? Yeah, we did, too...(City of Danbury)
DANBURY, CT — Don Miller and his wife Jennifer are the biggest Danbury fans not living in Danbury. In fact, they may be the city's biggest fans, anywhere. It is fitting, then, that they played such a key role in the return of the Uncle Sam statue to the city.
Don Miller grew up in the shadow of the Danbury Fair, before it was a mall, and moved to Vermont while still in high school. But the magic that was The Fair, and the nearby Racearena, left an impression that has proven indelible.
October 12, 1981, was the Day the Sawdust Died, when the Danbury Fair punched its last ticket. The land was bought by the Wilmorite Corporation, who opened the doors of the Danbury Fair Mall there just five years later.
The shuttering of The Fair and the Racearena left an itch with Don Miller, even way up in Vermont, that he couldn't figure how to scratch, until 2012.
"Don had the idea to — although it may be far-fetched — to collect his childhood memories of the Danbury Fair and Racearena. He never thought that he would find anything, but he had to try," his wife said.
The Millers hit pay dirt in 2016. After years of scouring websites and social media, they discovered a Dutch Girl figure, from the fair's "Dutch Village" attraction. They made the purchase, and although it was far from being their favorite fair memento, it was an inspiration, and validation: the Danbury Fair memorabilia was "out there," they just needed to keep looking.
But bigger-than-life-size pieces of Americana don't come cheap, and Dutch Girl was a reminder to the Millers that they really couldn't afford their new hobby. So the couple started Millers' Screen Printing & Embroidery, from their home in Wells, VT. They would use the revenue from their new T-shirt business to fund their Danbury Fair memorabilia jones.
The Millers began selling their work from their personal Facebook page, but soon after created the Danbury Fair and Racearena Memorabiliagroup on the social media network. Along the way they became social media experts, e-commerce wizards, and the go-to gurus on all things Danbury Fair.
"People always ask us what we're doing with it all," Jennifer said. "We let them know that we display all of our collection in our home. The only items that are not on display currently are the old newspaper clippings, and any original photos. We preserve these the best way possible."
Of course, there will always be those items that are just too large, and too expensive, to make their way into the Miller's cozy collection.
Like, say, that 38-foot statue of Uncle Sam.
Right Place, Right Time, Right Memorabilia Experts
On a visit to the Magic Forest amusement park in Lake George, NY, with their children, the Millers discovered their mother lode. The first glimmer came in the form of a pixie figurine in a display. Don Miller was certain it had originated at The Fair.
They tracked down Jack Gillette, the park's owner, to confirm his suspicions, and to inquire whether Magic Forest might have any more items that had originated at The Fair.
Boy, did they ever!
Gillette's father, Arthur, who operated Magic Forest before bequeathing it to his son, had made a deal to roll away with 20 truck loads of Danbury Fair statues, figurines, artwork, tsotchekes and gimcracks when the fair closed, and all of that had made its way to Magic Forest.
Both Jack Gillette and Magic Forest were starting to feel their age, according to Jennifer, and Gillette was preparing to sell off the park's assets. He wanted to know if that was something with which the Millers could help him.
"The agreement was, if we helped sell items for Jack, that Jack would ensure that we were taken care of," Jennifer said. "We made a list of items that we had already seen at the park that were of interest to us. He showed us items that had never been displayed (at The Fair). Some of the items that I placed for Jack, he had forgotten came from Danbury!"
A Journey of 40 Minutes Begins with a Single Step
At one of the cataloging and indexing and photo-taking sessions, Don brought up the 38-foot elephant in the room.
"What's going to happen to Uncle Sam?" he recalls asking Gillette, who informed him that the City of Troy, NY, had placed dibs on the statue a long time back, and was anxious to take possession. Gillette had just never gotten around to pulling the trigger on the deal, he said.
Wait, Troy? Troy, New York? Danbury Fair's Uncle Sam relocated to Troy? As if.
So Jennifer Miller flashed the Hat Signal, and Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton swung into action. Boughton better-dealed the New Yorkers, and the rest was (extensively and lovingly promoted in social media) history. The city announced in December that it had scored the icon, and after some necessary restoration, ensconced the colossus outside the Danbury Railway Museum last month. Danbury also salvaged the Cinderella display from Magic Forest.
The Millers memorialized Uncle Sam's triumphant return home with a T-shirt, naturally, and Boughton took to Twitter to promote it (also naturally - see below).
Jenn and Don Miller sell shirts that they may buy up and preserve Danbury Fair and Racearena mementos, so if you have any mementos, or need a shirt, be sure to contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-325-2259 or their Facebook group. Just don't challenge these Vermonters to any Danbury trivia, as you will lose.