The Hamilton sign responds to 2020. Photograph by SIPA USA / Alamy Stock Photo

Kyle Wheeler’s first visit to Chehalis, Washington, wasn’t supposed to be a memorable one. The then-28-year-old had lived in Toledo, a town 20 miles to the south, for all of a month when he pointed his new Outlander SUV onto I-5 and headed north toward the closest city big enough to boast luxuries like a Walmart.

He was picking up some supplies needed to open his dream dog boarding business in the home he’d just bought with his husband, whose position at a health nonprofit had transitioned to remote work (a few years before the pandemic banished so many others from the office). The couple jumped on the opportunity to leave Portland in search of some acreage—even if it meant leaving the city’s comfortable political climate, too. Wheeler had just zoomed by the Love’s truck stop when he caught his first glimpse of the drive-by landmark that would soon become his obsession.

Kyle Wheeler hopes to add a megasize welcome sign to his property near Hamilton’s.

Image: David Ryder

Calling that beast a sign is like calling the freeway a street—it’s an enormous billboard, so close to the lanes on northbound I-5 it seems to hover over them. A cartoonish depiction of Uncle Sam, lips sagging with disapproval above a sentient tuft of goatee, glowers heinously on its flank. Next to him, in the style of a movie theater marquee with letters the height of a human torso, a slogan shifts every few months like an alt-right changing of the seasons. One selection from 2017: “Freedom is dangerous! Slavery is peaceful!” The display marks the approximate halfway point between two Democratic strongholds—a fleeting “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment for drivers making their way between Portland and Seattle. Locals know it as the Hamilton sign.

Wheeler doesn’t remember what the sign said when he first saw it that sunny fall day in the final months before Trump’s 2016 election. All he remembers is the way it made him feel: Unwelcome. “North,” he decided, “wasn’t the direction for me.” He’d run future errands on the roughly equidistant journey south to Longview, the largest city in Cowlitz County. In 2020, 57.1 percent of the vote there went to Donald Trump, but its election-map red pales in comparison to Chehalis’s: In Lewis County, Trump won 64.9 percent of the electorate.

Though technically the sign is just over the border in Napavine, most see it as a gateway to Chehalis. Growing up there, I came to view the Hamilton sign as background noise. I would read its more offensive claims incredulously to my mom, reminisce on better days when at least the Uncle Sam illustration had eyes that made sense on his face. Later, I’d reference it to friends who asked where I grew up with much the same disdain any teenager feels toward their hometown: Look, I’m not happy about it, but it’s mine.

The Hamilton sign is a bastion of conservatism in a state where the last Republican governor left office in 1985. It’s also a monument to a decades-old battle for free speech, not to mention the center of a new, weirdly parallel fight for visibility that began on a sunny fall day, with a dog-loving guy on a supply run.

Kyle Wheeler left his own tiny, homophobic hometown in Southern California as soon as he could get out. He saw Uncle Sam as a warning sign. But he wasn’t ready to give up on Chehalis just yet.

The formidable Alfred Hamilton poses with his mouthpiece, Uncle Sam.

Alfred Hamilton was born on March 30, 1920, the son of prolific farmer Frank Hamilton, Lewis County’s 1961 cattleman of the year and proud commander of a flock of 4,000 turkeys. The family business came just as naturally to Alfred, who in high school won FFA awards for his purebred Holsteins and eventually raised 10,000 Thanksgiving birds, among other livestock, on a farm of his own.

The formidable countryman was also a member of the John Birch Society. The right-wing organization opposed civil rights legislation and insisted that a vast communist conspiracy lurked within liberal American government—a far-right precursor to today’s Pizzagates and Capitol insurrections.

Hamilton provided a bold platform for the anti-communist fervor that had drawn tens of thousands to the group nationwide. In November 1967, a couple exits north of Uncle Sam’s current location, a sign appeared on Hamilton’s turkey farm, clearly visible from this mid-Washington stretch of the West Coast’s main highway: “There are no billboards in Яussia!”

Phrases that Hamilton—and, after his death in 2004, his son Mike—have displayed over the ensuing decades generally align with the most inflammatory far-right sentiment of the day. At one point in the 1970s: “Women are meant to be cherished not liberated.” Recently: “Oh, no! A virus. Quick—Burn the Bill of Rights!” Those provocative messages galvanized petitioners, conservationists, vandals, and even prominent lawmakers against the sign. But, decade after decade, Hamilton was still there. (His family did not respond to requests for an interview.)

“If nothing else,” he told Centralia’s Daily Chronicle in 1971, “I think public opinion's on my side.”

Uncle Sam may have changed over the years, but his slant remains reliably right-wing.

Image: David Ryder

One day last summer, despite his best efforts to avoid it, the Hamilton sign showed up in Kyle Wheeler’s mailbox—that community-printed four-pager called the Lewis County News always does. This time the sign graced its front page, spouting off about saving children from sex ed. The missive didn’t matter so much as the story below, penned after aspiring vandals failed to burn Uncle Sam to the ground.

Wheeler peered through the half-rim rectangular frames of his glasses. Was the paper’s editor trying to quote Article 19 of the United States Constitution in support of the Hamilton sign? That couldn’t be right. A quick Google search confirmed what Wheeler already knew. There was no Article 19 of the Constitution—Lewis County News was, in fact, quoting the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Just about fed up with getting this rag in his mailbox—and fed up with its claims that the Hamilton sign “has a very loyal following of Lewis County residents”—Wheeler resolved to exercise some free speech of his own. It was June; he took out an ad on the front page: “You are loved, it gets better, don’t give up. Happy Pride.” For good measure, he also submitted a letter to the editor correcting the paper’s mistakes.

Just about fed up with Kyle Wheeler, the Lewis County News ended up printing neither. Undeterred, he sent the Pride ad out on his own to over 5,000 mailboxes, including the publisher’s.

Soon after, an opinion piece in the Chronicle repeated a refrain familiar to anyone who dares disdain Uncle Sam: If you don’t like what the sign has to say, get your own. Outside of a 2020 viral petition to dismantle it, the billboard enjoys significant public support. Conservative Lewis County staunchly defends the constitution (chiefly those first two amendments). But who doesn’t fight for free speech when they agree with what’s being said?

By the time Wheeler saw the paper’s suggestion, he knew the lay of this new land. His eyes didn’t roll; his wheels started turning. He thought of a friend from his teen years in Big Bear Lake, California, who never fully came out before her death in 2019. He had promised her he’d be an out-and-proud example for small-town kids like them. Thanks to Uncle Sam, everyone knew how Alfred Hamilton felt about the world. Imagine what an enormous rainbow billboard could do.

There was no property for sale near the Hamilton sign, but all Wheeler needed was a chance: a patch of unused land between a housing development and a Subway. He sealed an envelope and sent off a letter to the owners. For $3,000, that little parcel right by Uncle Sam was his. Eventually, he and a group of like-minded friends dreamed, a sign rivaling Hamilton’s would rise from the property’s blackberry thickets and muddy soil. A blimp-sized pride flag, emblazoned with block letters, shocking only in their contrast to that other sign’s rants and rage: “Lewis County Welcomes Everyone.”

Kyle Wheeler, left, and a friend stand with the first iteration of a sign rivaling Hamilton's.

With a few logistics standing in the way of his ultimate goals, Wheeler hired Carl’s Towing to move a shipping container to the property. The eight-foot sign righted atop it towered over Wheeler’s five-foot-eight frame, but from I-5, you could barely make out its rainbow stripes. Later that weekend a drunk 20-year-old in a camouflage hat would clamber up the container and tear down the sign with such ease that police first implicated the wind. That was all ahead of him: Standing on that container in front of his newly minted billboard stand-in, right hand in a peace sign stretched high above his head, Wheeler knew he’d be seen. He’d do anything.

 

Kyle Wheeler eventually left the dog boarding business. But a multicolor paint job brought new life to his company vehicle. Four years after he first saw the Hamilton sign, Wheeler parked that now-rainbow bus in front of Chehalis City Hall. Against the brombrombrom of the pickup trucks that drive by all day, that gentle, slight man with expressive eyebrows and a lilt that hints of five years living in Texas hardened his demeanor a bit and went to meet with the city about a sign.

He needed no introduction: For months, Wheeler had been engaged in terse email chains with just about everyone in the building. Because, as it turns out, putting up a sign of your own isn’t quite as simple as comments in the newspaper make it out to be.

And why not? Let me count the ways. His property is in a residential zone, where signs must remain residential; it holds a crucial stormwater pond that captures floodwaters whether its HOA gives a damn about it or not. It is, in perpetuity, “open space,” a blessed lot of briars saving residents from looking at two roadside eyesores instead of just one. An enterprising citizen could apply for a variance, or rezoning, but that would set a precedent planning and building manager Tammy Baraconi is “not prepared to set.” Good luck, Kyle Wheeler! The City Hall flags waved as he walked back to his bus.

That meeting primarily served to lift the fog from roadblocks Wheeler knew lay in wait—he just wanted the city to acknowledge them, to ensure he was holding the same map. After all, state laws that prohibited signs like his had already been proven toothless.

For that, Wheeler had a certain John Birch–loving turkey farmer to thank.

Uncle Sam's other gig.

Image: David Ryder

“These messages, no matter the degree to which we may agree or disagree with them, are protected,” says Tamara Greenwell at the Washington State Department of Transportation. She’s talking about the Hamilton sign.

Back in the 1960s, the state—scratch that, the whole federal government—was coming for every billboard in the country. Who would want a Rainier beer ad obscuring a vista of the actual mountain? Lyndon B. Johnson called it the Highway Beautification Act; Washington state, the Scenic Vistas Act. “Our eyeballs shouldn’t be for sale by whoever can afford to pay,” says Paula Rees, a Seattleite who fights highway advertising today.

Package it how you like. To Alfred Hamilton, it was a war on free speech. And he was enlisting.

“There are no billboards in Яussia,” remember? Hamilton’s Cold War–era statement presaged years of litigation. What did we care about more—maintaining Washington’s natural beauty and protecting drivers from distraction, or allowing, under all circumstances, the expression of free speech? The state came down on the side of the new laws, mounting its first suit against Hamilton in 1971. “Allowing it to stand would open the door for scores of other such signs along state highways,” Tom Garlington worried from the attorney general’s office in 1975; by then, Hamilton had already dismantled the sign, only to circumvent some legal technicalities by rebuilding it on the other side of the freeway with a “Hi folks! Hope you missed us like we missed you.”

In 1979, Hamilton and his right to say what he damn well pleased finally triumphed in the Washington State Supreme Court. “He had ‘guts’ enough to take issue with the state and federal government on many wrongs,” a Daily Chronicle letter to the editor praised. “We need more like him.”

The Hamilton sign drove Kyle Wheeler away from Chehalis for years. Now, he’s strangely driven by it. Different though their messages may be, Hamilton had something to say and fought obstinately for his right to say it. Wheeler’s doing the same thing.

“I am conflicted with the level of camaraderie I have felt sometimes with Mr. Hamilton,” he says. “I see exactly where he came from.”

 

Is Kyle Wheeler’s campaign for a more progressive billboard a sign that politics in Lewis County are changing direction? Hardly. Just take a look at the MAGA signs dotting front yards.

But every once in a while, on some tree-lined country road, a “Rural Americans Against Racism” sign pops into view. Or one that says “Love Thy Neighbor.” Both are projects of the Lewis County Lollipop Guild, a group Wheeler started in his quest to change the view for others driving through town.

Families visiting from Seattle, and local parents of trans kids, have sent Wheeler emails thanking him for those signs. Members of the Lewis County Lollipop Guild Facebook group post gleefully when they see them in the wild, in yards they’d never guess would belong to people who felt the way they did. “I’ve always been curious what pissed off Alfred Hamilton so much to make him want to build a billboard in the first place,” Wheeler says. “The guy just felt unheard.”

Wheeler says he will “fight tooth and nail until my deathbed” for a billboard so big and so proud that no one on I-5 can ignore it. He’s already proven that Lewis County is more than what you can see from the freeway.

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