It’s been 50 years since that Uncle Sam billboard went up along I-5 near Chehalis with its often right-wing messages. The turkey farmer who put it up died in 2004, but his legacy continues.
CHEHALIS — It’s been 50 years since that Uncle Sam billboard along Interstate 5 in Lewis County went up to enrage or perhaps just amuse at least some in the vast streams of motorists who’ve viewed it maybe 1.3 billion times.
Some may not think of the billboard exactly as a tourist landmark. But it is one of this state’s best-known sights, with its usually right-wingish ALL-CAP messages alongside a big cutout image of Uncle Sam in red, white and blue.
There have been different variations of Sam. Sometimes he looked worried, sometimes perplexed, sometimes like he was drawn by somebody not very good at painting images of a 4-foot head.
“PUBLIC LIBRARY: A GREAT PLACE FOR YOUR KIDS TO MEET SEXUAL DEVIANTS,” the sign once said.
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More recently: “YOU GET TO CHOOSE: MURDERS & BEHEADINGS; OR A PROTECTED BORDER.”
Last year alone, using the state Department of Transportation figures for the freeway stretch near Exit 72, something like 22.5 million vehicles went past the sign in both directions. There used to be one billboard, now there are two, placed in a “V” shape.
In either case, everybody on that freeway stretch could see the mammoth signs measuring 41 feet by 13 feet.
Ballpark the math for five decades — using traffic data for each decade (the feds use an occupancy rate of 1.6 per vehicle) — and you’re at an astounding 1.3 billion viewings by people going past messages such, “WOMEN ARE MEANT TO BE CHERISHED NOT LIBERATED.”
Or, “IF CHINA INVADES WHERE WILL WE GET THE MONEY FOR OUR DEFENSE?”
The billboards certainly get reaction.
On the web, for a while there was a site about the billboards called “The Fascist Farmer Strikes Again.”
Somebody also put together a Twitter account devoted just to the messages.
On Yelp, it gets three stars: “Every long stretch of deserted or rural highway needs something to keep the driver awake …”
The first news story about the billboard ran on Nov. 24, 1967, in The Chronicle, the newspaper that serves Lewis County, population 76,000.
It showed a photo of the billboard carrying the message, “THERE ARE NO BILLBOARDS IN RUSSIA!”
The caption explained that turkey rancher Alfred Hamilton, “who owns property adjacent to Interstate 5,” had put up the billboard “in apparent protest against a federal-state move to rid sections of interstate highway of billboards.”
And so ensued a legal battle that went from Lewis County Superior Court to the state Court of Appeals and finally to the state’s Supreme Court.
On Dec. 20, 1979, it ruled in favor of Hamilton, further cementing the legend of the Uncle Sam Billboard.
The state had argued that the billboard broke the Scenic Vistas Act of 1971. Hamilton said he was simply advertising his 200-acre farm’s product, which was not only turkeys, but also cattle, corn, grain, peas and hay. That was allowed by the vistas law.
And it was true. In small letters, the billboard would state, “Hamilton Farms,” or “Angus-Holstein Springers,” or even “Hamilton’s 7+,” the registered brand of his livestock.
Back in March 1975, Hamilton talked to The Seattle Times about the political messages.
They were “strictly used to beat the donkey over the head … it’s just to get people’s attention to the fact we have a sign out there.”
During the legal fight with the state, the Department of Transportation took photos of the billboard each time it changed messages, just to prove the billboard was about politics, not farm products.
Hamilton then combined the two: “NON-RED OR PINK SPRINGERS FOR SALE,” and, “NON-COMMUNIST STRAW FOR SALE.”
There were four months at the end of 1974 during his legal battle when Hamilton did take down the billboard, with the state picking up the bill.
Hamilton shrugged it off. The billboard needed a new paint job, he said, and he was tired of going across the freeway to change the messages, as I-5 cut his farm in half.
Hamilton died in 2004 at age 84.
Sherryl Zurek, 68, of Tujunga, California, one of his five children, says the freeway cutting her dad’s farm in half was something that gnawed at him.
It wasn’t until 1974 that the state entered into an agreement with Hamilton for $165,200 ($850,000 in today’s dollars) for the property it needed for the freeway.
“Pennies on the dollar,” says Zurek.
She tells a story to explain how her dad’s beliefs were formed.
One time, as Zurek remembers it, he needed help processing turkeys for the Thanksgiving season, and no workers were available.
“He finally went down to the welfare office and said, ‘Send every single person out to my farm. I’ll hire them all.’ It was 30 to 50 people that arrived,” she says. “One guy, he was filthy dirty. We had a shower. My dad said he had to wear a net over his hair. The guy said, ‘I won’t do that.’ My dad got really mad.”
Lewis County votes conservative. It went 65 percent for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. But even for this rural area, “some people think they’re pretty extreme messages,” says Chehalis Mayor Dennis Dawes.
Dawes, 63, is a retired Chehalis cop, a lifelong resident. Sometimes he gets asked as mayor about the billboard. A woman emailed about it recently. “I kindly told her it hasn’t got anything to do with the city of Chehalis. It’s privately owned, thank you very much.”
After 50 years of having the billboard around, says Dawes, “I’m so used to it I don’t even notice what’s on it.”
Zurek says her dad had plenty of supporters, along with his detractors.
In 1971, red and black paint were sprayed on Uncle Sam, adding to the original message of “POWER TO THE PEOPLE” the words: “FREE ANGELA DAVIS!”
At that time, Davis was on trial, and later acquitted, as an accomplice in the Soledad Brothers trial shootout that resulted in the killing of a judge and three others in California.
In response to the Angela Davis vandalism, supporters of Hamilton bought a full-page ad in The Chronicle with a photo of the sabotaged billboard and the headline, “Who is trying to destroy the Hamilton billboard?”
The names of more than 570 “Hamilton billboard boosters” were listed.
In 1995, Hamilton sold much of his property to a frozen-food company. But it wasn’t the end of the billboard.
County records show five parcels under the name Hamilton Corner LLC. The billboard sits on one of those parcels, assessed value, $689,000.
Al Hamilton and his wife, Ruth, had five children, and those children now have children.
Mike Hamilton, a son of Al Hamilton, is listed as governor of the limited liability company. Presumably he’s the author of the messages on the billboard.
Efforts to contact him to talk about his role in the billboard’s legacy were fruitless. Zurek says about her brother, “He’s leery of any journalists. So frequently he gets misquoted.”
Zurek says she and her brother share a conservative philosophy.
So, for how long can we expect messages from the Uncle Sam Billboard?
“I have no idea,” she says.
If you haven’t recently made a trip on that I-5 stretch, here is a little something to ponder from this week:
HOW MUCH OF WHAT YOU EARNED LAST YEAR DID YOU GET TO KEEP?