Controversy surrounding the Hamilton Corner Uncle Sam billboard along Interstate 5 in Napavine is again garnering attention.
On June 4, Centralia resident Nicholas Baum started a petition to Chehalis City Hall — which he later changed for Napavine City Hall — lobbying for the removal of the billboard, citing the sometimes controversial nature of the messages and its representation of Lewis County from I-5. The sign, in place for decades, has long been a point of debate. Past efforts to order its removal have not been successful.
The petition has received 75,718 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon, and the number continues to climb.
“Close to 80,000 people now have been affected by this sign,” Baum said. “Whether they’re from Lewis County or they’re just from Washington and they’re driving through, they are made uncomfortable by this sign. I just don’t believe, in 2020, this is something we should be supporting.”
To Baum, the petition is a peaceful way to try and lobby for change and give those who share similar views a collective voice.
“What I’m trying to do here is bring everybody’s voices together, where we can do something in a peaceful manner and a logical manner, rather than violence and anger,” he said.
Other opponents of the sign have tried to take different measures.
According to Lewis County Fire District 5 Chief Dan Mahoney, there was an attempt to set fire to the base of the sign at 2:30 a.m. Saturday morning. He said the fire wasn’t extensive and it remained in the grass around the wooden support poles.
The poles were slightly charred but otherwise, Mahoney said the fire was extinguished before substantial damage could be done.
“We did an in-house investigation and the sheriff’s department is doing an investigation,” Mahoney said. “That’s about all we know.”
A picture of the base of the sign following the incident was shared on Facebook by Winlock resident Wes Prater. The post garnered support and opposition online, where it now has 639 comments from people on both sides of the discussion. He said in looking at the sign, it looks as if someone dumped gasoline on wet ground, which is why he believes it didn’t do more damage.
Prater continued by saying he enjoys the sign and the controversial nature of some of the statements. He also believes the sign carries historical significance for the county.
“I grew up here, I’m over 50 years old and it’s been there in operation for longer than I can remember,” Prater said.
The sign is now owned by Mike Hamilton, the son of original owner Alfred Hamilton. He declined to comment for this story.
Prater says that if the sign were to be removed, he and many others would be “sorely disappointed.”
“It’s his sign, it’s his right to say what he wants,” Prater said. “If it’s removed because of the petition, then by rights, every opposing newspaper, sign, banner, anything, would have to come down under the same grounds. I feel the petition is kind of a wasted effort. They can sign it if they want, but it is what it is.”
Free speech is an aspect of the issue that Baum acknowledges. He said he doesn’t have an issue with the sign’s political posts. Rather, he said the messages pertaining to race and sexuality are what he finds troubling.
“It kind of sounds like bar talk to me,” Baum said. “It just sounds like gentlemen that are talking about illegal immigrants and such like that and they’re talking about it amongst themselves. You know, that’s fine, freedom of speech, everybody can have their own opinions for sure, but should it be posted on the side of the freeway? I don’t think so, especially not in Lewis County.”
He cited the current social climate as another reason why the conversation surrounding the sign continues.
“I do in fact believe that, with all of the things that are going on, now is the time to actually do something about it,” Baum said. “People are making changes all over the world right now … with these protests. With this petition, in itself, it is its own protest to fight against this one thing that is really making a bad impression on Lewis County.”
Baum said he plans on bringing the petition to Napavine City Hall in an attempt to push for change. He hopes the attempt by an unknown perpetrator to burn down the sign doesn’t have an impact on how his cause is viewed.
He disagrees with the attempt and hopes the response from the public will be enough for others to keep an open mind.
“I’m really bummed out that did happen,” Baum said. “I’m still trying to move forward and I hope the attempt of burning this thing down doesn’t affect what we’re trying to do in a negative way. When I do bring this to the City Hall and try to bring this to a court, I don’t want that to be brought up.”
To Baum, the point of his push to have the sign taken down is rooted in his desire for progression in the people of Lewis County.
“I kind of look at it as an old fashioned opinion,” Baum said. “These things that are being stated on the sign, that is not what the majority of Lewis County thinks. I think by taking this thing down, we’re kind of now listening to everybody. We are evolving.”