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Is Lee Politsch's artifact the right deal? If so, he's right and the history of European exploration in America is wrong.



By Ted Kleine

Lee Politsch was a teenager when he first heard the stories about a local farmer who'd been searching for Indian arrowheads in a creek near the Mississippi River and instead found a limestone slab covered with inscriptions. Politsch was a man of 34 when he saw the stone and decided to decipher it.

"I thought, 'I'll go down to the library and solve it in 15 minutes,'" he says. "Boy, was I in for a surprise."

Now Politsch is 77 and he's still trying to prove that the stone is the important historic relic he thinks it is. If he's right, almost all the books on the exploration of America will have to be rewritten.

"If this stone is authentic, it's as important as the Plymouth Rock or the Liberty Bell," says Politsch, an amateur historian who conducts his research out of the bedroom of his house in Quincy, Illinois. "It's important evidence of exploration in the Mississippi Valley."

Starting with Francis Parkman, historians have credited the Jesuit Jacques Marquette and his sidekick Louis Joliet with discovering the upper Mississippi, in 1673. But the date on the stone is 1671. Politsch thinks the stone was left by the French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who in that case probably was also the first white man at the site of present-day Chicago. The Chicago portage was the quickest link between Lake Michigan and the Illinois River system, which would have been La Salle's route to the Mississippi.

"Illinois history generally begins with Marquette and Joliet," says Politsch. "That would really jar things up if La Salle could be proven to have been here two years earlier."

The stone was discovered around 1910 by a farmer named Samuel Cook. One spring day, Cook went hunting for arrowheads on his farm near Quincy, Illinois, a town on the Mississippi River a hundred miles northwest of Saint Louis. As he was searching a small stream he spotted a chunk of limestone about the size of a writing tablet. It was inscribed with letters and numbers half hidden by clay and muck. Cook pulled it out of the mud and carried it back to the farmhouse. Some carpenters who'd been working on the farm scraped the tablet clean with their screwdrivers, revealing a cross, the letters IHS (for in hoc signo, "by this sign"), and the numbers 1671. Cook didn't understand what the inscriptions meant, but he kept the stone around the house with his arrowheads and it became a neighborhood legend.

Word reached town slowly. Charles Griep, Cook's mailman, told his son Bob about it. Bob, who clerked at Politsch Hardware in "Calftown," the old German quarter of Quincy, mentioned it at work. Lee Politsch, the owner's son, seemed interested in seeing the stone, but then World War II came and Lee went off to the army. After the war Politsch came home to work in his father's store, but didn't think much about the stone until 1956, when he heard that Charles Griep was dying. On his deathbed, Charles told Lee and Bob where the stone resided, and the two men arranged to see it. By then Samuel Cook was dead and the stone belonged to his son Ed. Politsch said he wanted to solve the mystery of its message, so Ed Cook let him borrow it. He never got it back.

La Salle, the man whose claim Politsch has taken up, was an Odysseus. He was the first man to descend the Mississippi all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. When he reached the mouth of the river, he had the audacity to claim "the Mississippi and all its tributaries"--an area stretching from Pennsylvania to Montana--for Louis XIV.

La Salle was the most stalwart adventurer who ever walked in buckskins, hardier even than Lewis and Clark. In March of 1680, La Salle and his men were encamped at Fort Crevecoeur, near today's Peoria, waiting for provisions from Canada. The supply ship, which should have unloaded at the foot of Lake Michigan the previous autumn, was long overdue. With the rivers still frozen, there was only one way to find out what had happened to it: walk back to Fort Frontenac, the French settlement on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. La Salle and a small party made the trip in 65 days, trudging across prairies on snowshoes and wading through knee-deep marshes.

La Salle was also one of the great tragic figures in American history. His monomania made his discoveries possible, but it also brought about his death. In 1685 he led an expedition from Haiti to found a settlement at the mouth of the Mississippi. But while traveling along the gulf coast the explorer and his navigator miscalculated badly, and their four ships sailed all the way to Texas. Still searching for the river in 1687, he was assassinated by his men, who could no longer tolerate his dictatorial leadership, his contempt for those unwilling to suffer in the name of discovery.

"It is easy to reckon up his defects, but it is not easy to hide from sight the Roman virtues that redeemed them," eulogized Francis Parkman in La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West.

"He was a tower of adamant, against whose impregnable front hardship and danger, the rage of man and of the elements, the southern sun, the northern blast, fatigue, famine and disease, delay, disappointment, and deferred hope emptied their quivers in vain."

He is an inspiration to anyone with a quest.

Lee Politsch lives in a redwood A-frame that was once Lee's Sports, a camping, hunting, and fishing emporium he ran for a dozen years. A tall, sallow man, he supports his gangly body on a walker necessitated by the lingering effects of childhood polio. We shook hands and he led me into his sanctuary.

First we passed through the darkened showroom, which he had designed to look like a hunting lodge, with a vaulted roof, a fireplace, and antlers over the doorway. Since closing the shop in 1982 he's decorated it with photo murals of Minnesota's Boundary Waters, where he canoed every year until his disability stopped him. The Boundary Waters are his favorite place in the world besides Quincy, and he sometimes sits in the room and puts on a tape of running water and loons to take himself back. The old display shelves have been converted into a bookcase. Politsch's minuscule library shows that his interests haven't changed much since boyhood. He's got a Bible, books on Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes, and a few works by Minnesota naturalist Sigurd Olson, whom he was thrilled to meet during a canoe trip one summer.

Politsch spends almost all his time in the back room of the old shop. It's his office, where he stores the thick three-ring binders stuffed with documents and correspondence on the stone. It's his kitchen, where he fixes himself frozen dinners every night. It's his bedroom, where his wardrobe--mostly flannel shirts--hangs from a pole. And it's his den, where he watches Cubs games every afternoon.

I'd just driven six and a half hours from Chicago and was hungry, so I offered to take him out to lunch. No thanks, he said. Too many crowds.

And why waste an hour in a restaurant? He had so much to show me. So he sat me down at his metal desk, heated me a Banquet chicken parmesan, and while I ate began unspooling the tale of the stone, which he's dubbed the Ellington Stone because it was discovered in Ellington Township. While certainly not as obsessed as La Salle, he seemed just as determined. He's been trying to prove the stone's authenticity for 43 years, as many years as La Salle lived.

Parkman's book has a discussion of whether La Salle could have reached the Mississippi in 1671, one of the "missing years" from which no journals have been found. Parkman credits La Salle with reaching the Illinois but not with discovering the upper Mississippi. But Parkman never saw the Ellington Stone.

"When I went down to the library I found out that Parkman said La Salle could have been in the area in 1671," Politsch said. "I figured he was the one. The Indians wouldn't have done it, and the British weren't here, and Marquette and Joliet would have put '73. So who's left but La Salle?" Furthermore, Politsch reasons, the inscriptions suggest a draftsman's hand and La Salle had studied drawing and architecture; he also read and wrote Latin, thanks to his Jesuit education.

Ever since reading Parkman, Politsch has been trying to persuade the rest of the world, which still believes it was Marquette and Joliet. In the 1950s he showed the stone to Father Francis Borgia Steck, a historian at Quincy College. Steck shared it with another scholar, archaeologist Stuart Struever. Struever took it to the Oriental Institute in Chicago, where it was analyzed by Willard Schmidt, who specialized in Middle Eastern carvings. Schmidt said it looked as though it was carved by someone expert with tools, but "to prove who brought it here would be substantiated only by pages of forgotten history."

Steck also suspected the Ellington Stone might be authentic. To prove this to me, Politsch dug up a cassette of the old priest discussing the stone with Struever and popped it into his tape deck.

"I examined it, and I'm inclined to think it's genuine," said an elderly voice on the tape recorder. "That was put there by somebody, and whoever it was saw the Mississippi in 1671."

But when Steck wrote his book Marquette Legends, he didn't mention the Ellington Stone.

"He was afraid to," Politsch said. "He never came out and told me, but that was it. He didn't want to stick his neck out. If someone came forward and said they faked it, he'd look dumb."

Other historians have dismissed the Ellington Stone outright. Politsch sent a photo of it to a curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, who wrote back that he was "struck by its modern look....The sharp chisel entries at ends of characters and in-sloping of 'H' point to a post-1900 origin." The Jesuit Archives in Quebec returned a similar response. The stone appeared to be un faux--a fake.

"The probability that La Salle might have come that way in 1671 seems to be nil," the letter added.

"Why would a faker put 1671, instead of '73?" Politsch wondered. "Why would a faker trespass on a farm and leave it there, not knowing if anyone would find it?"

Back in the 50s, when Politsch wrote the first letters informing historians about his find, "I was naive enough to think that the whole world of history and archaeology was breathlessly waiting for this. People have been polite, but they seem to forget about it when they go home."

Nevertheless, Politsch insists the trail has got warmer over the years. In the early 1960s a local man named Hufendick came into the hardware store to tell Politsch about a bowl with foreign writing he'd found as a child while playing near a spring. The bowl matched the description of a copper kettle La Salle had buried near the mouth of the Mississippi to support France's claim on the river. And in 1968 historian John Upton Terrell came out with La Salle: The Life and Times of an Explorer, which claims that La Salle did indeed discover the upper Mississippi. (The lower Mississippi had been discovered near the Gulf of Mexico by the Spaniard Hernando de Soto in 1541. The upper Mississippi, the body of water whose discovery is contested here, is considered the stretch of the river above the meeting with the Missouri.) Terrell's source was Eusebe Renadout, an abbot who'd interviewed La Salle on one of the explorer's trips home to France. Terrell dismisses the claims of Marquette and Joliet as a Jesuit plot, "propaganda designed to discredit La Salle." (Again quoting Renadout, Terrell also wrote that La Salle discovered a tres-beau havre at the south end of Lake Michigan. That beautiful harbor would be our own Chicago River.)

Two months ago a Quincy woman told Politsch she'd once seen a slab inscribed with a cross and a date "older than the United States." It was used as a stepping stone across Cedar Creek, the creek where the Ellington Stone was found.

I had a few questions for Politsch. If La Salle did reach the upper Mississippi in 1671, wouldn't it have been by descending the Illinois? Quincy is 150 miles upriver from the Illinois' confluence with the Mississippi. And why didn't La Salle tell anyone back in Canada what he'd found?

Politsch has been turning these questions over in his mind for years, and he gave me the answers right away. La Salle could have cut west across the prairie at present-day Naples, Illinois, he pointed out, paddling up McKee Creek and portaging to Cedar Creek. The Indians knew the route and could have guided him. As for his secrecy, "He didn't want every Tom, Dick, and Harry going down there. He wanted to exploit the river for himself."

After lunch, Politsch took me to see the Ellington Stone. When he first borrowed it from Ed Cook, Politsch kept the stone in a wastebasket. After he was "razzed" about his caretaking, he transferred it to a fireproof safe. Now it's in a vault in the Quincy Museum. Politsch called ahead so the curators could fetch the stone, then we climbed into his 1974 Chevy Suburban.

The museum is in one of the lavish old mansions in Quincy's east end. I went inside while Politsch, who has great difficulty navigating stairs, waited in the truck. A volunteer led me to a locked room on the third floor. After pulling on white gloves, he lifted the stone from a cardboard box and held it up so I could take a picture. Some artifacts awe you with their immensity--the Elgin Marbles, say--but the Ellington Stone is small enough to fit in a desk drawer.

(The museum's director, Steve Adams, was out, so I called him a few days later and asked if he thought the stone was authentic. He begged off. "I'm reserving judgment on that, since it's coming from an area that's not my expertise," he said. "There's more being written in favor of it than not, though.")

After the museum, we drove out to the old Cook farm where the stone was found. I noticed that Politsch had put only 86,000 miles on his truck.

"Not a lot for 25 years," I said.

The only reason there were that many, he said, was the trips to Minnesota. Those summer vacations lasted from the 1950s to the early 1980s, and Politsch had a lot of stories to tell about them. He loved canoeing because it was a sport in which his weak legs weren't a handicap, but he needed help carrying his boat. He usually called down to the Boy Scout office and recruited an Eagle Scout to go with him.

"It was funny how hard it was to find someone to go with me," he said. "It seems like nobody wanted to go. I always thought that was the neatest thing I ever did, just to sit there thinking that there was only one highway and one rail line between me and the arctic circle."

He loved camping out, he said, because he hadn't been able to do it as a boy. He'd wanted to join the Scouts himself, but his parents thought he was too "backward," not "rough and ready enough" for the outdoor life, and they wanted him to help around the store.

"Later on I got all the camping out I wanted," he said. "It seems like the only things I've been denied are a wife and travel."

Politsch lived away from South Eighth Street in Quincy only once in his life, when he was in the army during World War II. The aftereffects of the polio kept him from walking even a mile, so the army air force made him a photo clerk and stationed him in the United States. He trained at Lowry Field in Denver. Many air force men fall in love with the Rockies, but Politsch was homesick for the Mississippi.

"I missed the river," he said. "The fluid personality of the river was what I missed. Those mountains were just too rigid."

If Politsch hadn't stayed in Quincy, hadn't lived a bachelor's life, it's possible that the Ellington Stone would still be a curio in the Wood family parlor. I wondered if the Ellington Stone had actually discovered Politsch rather than the other way around. No man could have served it better.

"I feel like I've been given this project by fate," Politsch said. "I'm not the average Joe. I like unusual things, or I make things unusual. I don't have a family. I have time to do this. Most people say, 'Lee, if you had a family, you wouldn't have time to do all these interesting things.' I'm interested in writing, model railroading."

The Suburban climbed up a two-lane road northeast of town, and reached a hill topped with radio towers. Politsch pointed at a copse of trees a few hundred yards to the right. That's where the stone was found. If Politsch is right, that's where La Salle sat and carved 328 years ago. In my head I could hear the scraping of the chisel against the rock.

Some prophets are without honor in their own counties, but it's not true of Politsch. If the history establishment regards him as a persistent small-town hobbyist, the mayor of Quincy smells a tourist attraction. Chuck Scholz wants to build an Ellington Stone Park near the old Wood farm. It would lie at the head of a three-mile trail following Cedar Creek down to the Mississippi, and be lined with interpretive markers on the life of La Salle.

Quincy, once one of the wealthiest cities in the midwest, has been neglected by America for years. River traffic is now a trickle, and the interstate highway system passed it by until eight years ago, when it was linked up with a spur of I-72. Quincy is still an old river town. It will look familiar to anyone who's visited Dubuque, Iowa, or Vicksburg, Mississippi. It has changed little in the past 50 years, which means it looks beautiful in some places, neglected in others. It has 19th-century mansions, massive and stately as ships, with dogwoods blooming on the front lawns each spring. But its downtown, resting on a tall bluff, is a listless strip, with a theater that plays second-run movies. There's a monument in Washington Park marking the site of a Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858, but that pair spoke in five other towns as well. The Ellington Stone could give Quincy a unique historical claim. Only one town can be the place where white men first glimpsed the upper Mississippi.

"It's one of the most significant historical discoveries in the last millennium," said Mayor Scholz when I called Quincy city hall and asked him about the Ellington Stone. "In the history of this continent, what's more important than the discovery of the upper Mississippi? It's why we're here as a city. We believe the upper Mississippi was discovered right here in Quincy, so we ought to just say that. We have the physical evidence. If someone wants to argue, let 'em."

Politsch has his own plan to bring the Ellington Stone to the attention of the world beyond Quincy. He's been writing Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker who produced Baseball and The Civil War for PBS, asking him to turn his camera on La Salle. Better a documentary than a Hollywood movie, Politsch figures. Hollywood would "blow it up" with "sex and romance." Burns's office sent back a form reply: "He is not looking at new ideas, but I will keep your materials in our suggestions file with your other letters at his request. Who knows what the future holds?"

That didn't discourage Politsch. When it comes to La Salle and the Ellington Stone, nothing discourages Politsch. This July Burns will be in Hannibal, Missouri, a few miles downriver, filming a documentary about Mark Twain. Politsch plans to introduce himself and make a personal pitch.

"I'm going to grab him by the sleeve and say, 'How about doing La Salle?'"

Politsch doesn't want publicity for himself or even for the Ellington Stone, he says. He just wants the world to know about La Salle, the man who's fascinated him for 43 years and shaped his life since he closed down Lee's Sports. At the same time, though, if PBS viewers go crazy for La Salle the way they did for the Civil War, maybe someone will turn up with a piece of missing evidence--a journal, a map, a diary--that proves La Salle visited Quincy and left the Ellington Stone behind. If this happens, Politsch's quest will be finished, his work validated. He might even show up in the footnotes of books on French exploration, which is more recognition than history gives most people.

"If I could do that," he said, "I could succeed where Parkman failed, because he didn't have the stone. That'd be my compensation. I'm not going to get any money out of it."

For more on Quincy see the Visitors' Guide on page 44.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Armandon Villa.

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