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Published: Tuesday, 7/1/2008

3 giant Uncle Sam statues still stand up for something

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
One of the three Uncle Sams has beckoned passers-by to stop at All-American Novelties at Sterns and U.S. 23 for 16 years. One of the three Uncle Sams has beckoned passers-by to stop at All-American Novelties at Sterns and U.S. 23 for 16 years.
THE BLADE/HERRAL LONG Enlarge | Buy This Photo

They shill for fireworks in Ohio and Michigan and await assignment in a vacant field in New Mexico an hour from the Mexican border.

But four decades ago, the giant Uncle Sam statues were the advertising icon of a six-restaurant local chain of hamburger restaurants with the same name.

Sam Fine, founder of Uncle Sam's restaurants, was a big thinker in a big era when Frank and Dean ruled the Vegas strip and Ray Kroc's hamburger empire was the talk of the nation.

Hoping to duplicate McDonald's success, the Toledo businessman and his son Elliot, in 1965 started the chain, which was named for the founder as much as for the symbol of U.S. patriotism. But Uncle Sam's never took off, and Mr. Fine died 21 years ago.

But the three big statues that he commissioned survive.

In Ottawa Lake, the fiber-glass giant has lured motorists for 16 years to All-American Novelties off U.S. 23 at Sterns Road.

"It gets attention," Betsy Soss, a manager, said.

Her family paid $9,000 for the 42-foot statue - the larg-est of the three - in 1992. For a time after the Uncle Sam's chain changed names in the early 1970s, the statue was painted to look like Abe Lincoln and was posted outside a Toledo firm specializing in rural water and waste-water treatment systems.

In 1992, a truck hauls one of the Uncle Sams across the border to its new home, All-American Novelties in Ottawa Lake.
In 1992, a truck hauls one of the Uncle Sams across the border to its new home, All-American Novelties in Ottawa Lake.
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In Convoy, Ohio, near Van Wert, fireworks retailer Stephanie Bowman isn't sure if Uncle Sam brings in customers.

"But it's fun," the owner of U.S. 30 Fireworks said. "It's the landmark out here - the big Uncle Sam. I got a laugh when a 5-year-old boy asked me if it was Bill Clinton."

Teako Nunn, a recreational vehicle dealer in Hatch, N.M., hasn't decided what to do with the Uncle Sam statue he bought two years ago on eBay from a southwest Ohio antique shop.

"We've got a giant called Muffler Man in front of our R.V. dealership, and I'm fixing to put an A&W Root Beer mama statue on top of a hamburger joint," he said.

"But we haven't figured out what to do with Uncle Sam. He's resting in a vacant field waiting for my next brainstorm."

Mr. Nunn estimates that he spent $14,000 to buy Uncle Sam and transport it to the 1,000-person town in southwest New Mexico.

When antiques dealers George and Fay Spencer erected the 24-foot statue in front of their antiques shop in Waynesville, Ohio, south of Dayton, in the mid-1980s, the town historical commission threatened to fine them $50 a day until it was removed. But customers signed petitions demanding the statue be allowed to stay and the Spencers vowed to take the issue to court, Mrs. Spencer recalled.

The commission backed off.

"Uncle Sam has been on Good Morning America and in all kinds of photo shoots," she said. The antiques dealers decided to sell because they couldn't pass up the chance to reap a steep profit on their original $3,000 investment.

By the time it was sold, the statue was a beloved presence in the community. "When Uncle Sam left, we all missed him," Barb Lindsay, events coordinator for the Chamber of Commerce, said.

Elliot Fine, who created the Uncle Sam's Restaurant chain with his father in 1965, is a franchising consultant based in Islamorada, Fla.

"I came up with the name, but the statues were his idea," Elliot Fine recalled in a phone interview. "He found a fellow in Wisconsin to build them. They were something like $3,000, which was huge amount of money at the time."

There were statues at three of the six restaurants: Laskey Road, Broadway, and Cherry Street. The original idea was for the statue to hold a hamburger in his hand, but fabricators couldn't make the concept work because the burger was too heavy, Mr. Fine said.

But the statues succeeded. "It gave a nice identity to the operation," he added.

Sam Fine, who grew up the son of a scrap-metal dealer, started out as a meat salesman before founding White Hut Restaurants in 1936.

At one point, there were five White Huts. Other businesses included Suzy Q Doughnuts and Mello Cream bakery.

An imposing man of 6 feet and 250 pounds, Mr. Fine was a boxer and stunt pilot in his youth. He became an astute businessman. "He had an innate sense for business," his son said.

When he turned 50, friends and community leaders celebrated at the former Commodore Perry Hotel in downtown Toledo.

"He was a character, a real nice fellow," Allan Feldstein, former corporate controller for Mr. Fine, recalled.

At one point, Elliot and Sam hoped to franchise Uncle Sam's restaurants nationwide.

"They did well for a few years," Mr. Feldstein said. But problems increased as the chain expanded.

As opposition grew to the Vietnam War, the concept lost favor. "Uncle Sam was not the best image to present to the public," Mr. Feldstein said. "Everybody was anti-government."

Eventually the family abandoned the name and converted some of the restaurants to White Huts. Sam Fine suffered a fatal heart attack in 1987 at age 80.

As time passed, his statues regained their popularity. "Everybody comes in and asks if it's OK to stand next to them on the deck," an employee of All-American Novelty in Ottawa Lake recounted.

Contact Gary Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6082.



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