'Uncle Sam' billboard owner dies


Alfred Hamilton, who died Tuesday morning at age 84, was a man who wasn't afraid to express his ideas.

"He was a fighter," said Sherryl Zurek, a daughter. "He loved a fight. He loved to argue or discuss."

Hamilton was born March 31, 1920, to parents Frank and Edith Hamilton, and was reared in Chehalis, east of what is now Interstate 5 near exit 72. He attended the one-room Valley School as a child and studied at what is now Washington State University, where he played football. During World War II, he left one term before graduating.

"If he graduated, he would have been drafted," said Zurek. "He quit early so he could get a deferment, and he farmed instead of going into the service."

Hamilton married Ruth Knoles in 1942. The two had five children together. He raised sheep, then started raising turkeys, producing as many as 20,000 to 30,000 a year on the land just north of Midway Meats and west of Interstate 5. With the assistance of George Duby, a veterinarian, he further developed a breed his father had started, which he sold to restaurants and hotels between Seattle and Portland.

"He had one at the Southwest Washington Fair that weighed 72 pounds," said Duby, a friend since 1944.

Hamilton became interested in real estate, building and leasing the Ribeye restaurant and McDonald's on the land left him by his father east of Interstate 5 at Napavine. While his occupation was turkey farmer, he also invested.

"His lifelong ambition was to be a stock broker," said Zurek. "When he could, he put money into stocks. He did very well in the stock market."

Hamilton is perhaps best known for his two-sided "Uncle Sam" billboard, which was originally located on his farm between Centralia and Chehalis in 1971. He originally built the sign at the instigation of his wife, who found that the state was spending more money on welfare than on schools.

Over the years, the sign displayed conservative messages against politicians of whom Hamilton disapproved, homosexuals, Russia, abortion, communism, big government, the United Nations, gun control and so forth.

In a 1985 interview with The Oregonian, Hamilton said many of the messages came from the John Birch Society, a political group often considered to be toward the right end of the conservative movement. The billboard was written about in The Seattle Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Oregonian newspapers, and got attention throughout the state.

"He loved the comments he would get from that," said Zurek. "Pro or con, he loved the comments."

"It continues to serve as one of the icons of Lewis County," said Todd Christensen, CEO of the Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce. "You mention you're from Lewis County, and that is an element that is usually raised."

In 1971, then-state Attorney General Slade Gorton filed a lawsuit against Hamilton for his billboard under the Scenic Vista Act. During the course of the suit, Hamilton moved the billboard from his farm to exit 72. The case went to the Washington State Court of Appeals before it was resolved in 1979 in Hamilton's favor.

The family has not yet decided what it plans to do with the billboard, said Zurek

In 1983, Hamilton and his wife started a trip around the world by sailboat. The journey lasted nine years. The Rev. Tom Bradshaw, pastor of Chehalis First Christian Church, met him shortly after he returned.

"I would describe him as a man who was passionate about life," said Bradshaw. "The last few years, he talked about how much he had to be thankful for, with his success in business ventures and the opportunity to sail around the world."

Bradshaw also described him as physically imposing.

"He stood about 6-3 or 6-4, and weighed 200 pounds or so," said Bradshaw. "He gave you the feeling he was the kind of man you wouldn't want to mess with."

In 1995, Hamilton sold 130 acres to National Frozen Foods for $750,000. He built a house on Moon Hill Road near Curtis and moved there. In 2001, his wife died. In recent years, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and, more recently, with cancer.

"He was a man of very strong convictions," said Duby "He was very conservative in his politics. Even though we disagreed on many things, I think it made our friendship stronger."

Duby quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson to prove his point: "It is always better to be a thorn in the side of your friend than an echo."

Hamilton is survived by his sister, Betty; his children, Larry, Zurek, Edith and Mike; and 12 grandchildren.

A funeral will be held at First Christian Church at 11 a.m. Saturday, with a graveside committal scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday at Fern Hill Cemetery.

Mark Lawton covers economic and energy issues for The Chronicle. He may be reached at 807-8231, or by e-mail at mlawton@chronline.com.