LAKE MILLS, Wis. - There's something in Rock Lake. What, exactly, lies at the bottom of this placid fishing hole east of Madison, Wis., is the stuff of local legend, the obsession of scores of divers and the spark of an unlikely controversy that has raged among locals for decades.
Believers, including many old-timers and diving enthusiasts, say that ancient pyramids, ruins and even a serpentlike, 200-foot-long rock figure lie beneath these algae-filled waters. They say pre-Columbian dwellers built the structures on dry land before the area was flooded by geological upheavals and a dam built in the 1800s.
Skeptics, including the state's top archaeologist, say there's nothing but natural piles of rocks below the 40-foot depths. They deride the pyramid legend as silly and say it's gotten sillier with the recent publication of books such as "Atlantis in Wisconsin" and "The Lost Pyramids of Rock Lake: Wisconsin's Sunken Civilization" (both Glade Press Inc., Lakeville, Minn.).
The believers' cause wasn't helped recently when the pyramid-chronicling author of both books admitted to his former public persona. Current Wisconsin resident Frank Joseph, it turns out, was known in the 1970s as Frank Collin, the neo-Nazi leader who led an infamous effort to march in Skokie, Ill.
"It's not like I tried to hide," he said, noting that his nom de plume consists of his middle name without his last name. "If I had wanted to hide, I would've called myself Melvin Proudfoot or
But this is not a story about the career paths of former neo-Nazi leaders.
It is, rather, the story of how a legend began and how it has been kept alive. How 10 people looking at the same set of facts can come up with 10 different explanations. And how the otherwise unremarkable town of Lake Mills, which abuts the lake, came to call itself "City of the Pyramids."Research Society hard at work
The current leader of the pyramid hunters is Archie Eschborn, a plastics executive with an interest in what he calls the "obscure aspects of archaeology."
For the past year, Eschborn has coordinated a group called the Rock Lake Research Society (Web site: www.rocklakeresearch.com), which runs on donations and has spent $50,000 so far in its efforts.
Consisting of scuba divers, academics, history students and a Chicago blues record producer, the group is led by Eschborn, who paces on docks, observing by remote video as divers steer cameras below and barking orders to keep explorations on target.
Eschborn's goal is to systematically map the underwater features of Rock Lake, a quest that he said has cost him around $25,000. He hopes to persuade Wisconsin authorities to declare Rock Lake a protected archaeological site.
"This could be the last great archaeological discovery in North America in the 20th century," he said. "It needs to be preserved."
Eschborn is only the latest person to be bitten by the pyramid bug. Lake Mills has long embraced the legend.
Pyramids loom so large in the marketing of Lake Mills that one may eat, sleep, drink, work and play at places named after the monuments. In addition to the Pyramid Motel and Liquor, there's the Pyramid Driving School, Pyramid Silo Service and Pyramid Supper Club and Lounge. The city's symbol for Tyranena Park on the lake incorporates three stylized pyramids amid rippling waves. The Lake Mills Area Chamber of Commerce adopted the "City of the Pyramids" slogan on its Web site.
Some of the town's identity springs from Aztalan State Park, an archaeological site about three miles away with flat-topped pyramidal mounds made 1,000 years ago.
The roots of the legend
While some say Ho Chunk Native Americans spoke of "rock teepees" in the lake more than a century ago, the modern origin of the sunken pyramid legend goes back to a World War I-era mayor of Lake Mills named Claude Wilson, according to accounts in the Lake Mills Leader.
While rowing across the lake, the story goes, Wilson and his brother said they saw the apex of a pyramid when the lake was six feet lower than normal.
"They poked an oar over the side of their boat and about six feet down in the water they could push with the oar against the hard stonework of the pyramid," said a 1970 article that appeared in Skin Diver magazine.
In the 1930s, diver Max Gene Nohl claimed to have solved the mystery in a series of lectures he gave around the region. "The pyramid is shaped in the form of a truncated cone," he wrote in a 1932 letter to the Leader, describing it as 29 feet tall. "The construction is apparently of smooth stones set in a mortar."
Early on, such claims were met with deep skepticism.
A March 4, 1940, news article described the exploits of Nohl and his conclusion that he had discovered underwater Indian mounds. Charles Brown, an archaeologist who was then director of the state Historical Society Museum, duly filed the news clipping but scrawled his opinion of it across the top: "More of this bunk."
Archaeologist is chief skeptic
Today, the pyramid story's chief skeptic is Robert Birmingham, Wisconsin's state archaeologist with the state Historical Society. Every supposedly mysterious object identified in the lake, he said, can be explained as the work of nature.
Take the "mortar" talked about by Nohl, for example. In hard-water lakes such as Rock Lake, white calcium deposits that encrust everything from rocks to junked tires might to some eyes resemble mortar, he said. And, despite repeated attempts, state divers have found no evidence of pyramids.
"We have gone down there on a number of occasions and seen piles of rocks, as you would expect in this part of Wisconsin," Birmingham said. "We've seen nothing out of the ordinary and nothing that could not be well explained by geology."
Eschborn finds Birmingham's skepticism infuriating because, he said, the state's dives have been perfunctory and off-target.
Sometimes, he added, what may appear to be a pile of rocks up close takes on a significance if pieced together from afar. The group claims to have found a 200-foot-long "dragon in the lake," a serpentlike formation.
Drawing on Greek mythology and pyramid lore from around the world, Joseph claims that Rock Lake was a pre-Columbian trading hub for copper extracted from Michigan's Upper Peninsula and shipped across the Atlantic.
The idea of an ancient, lost civilization of seafaring Europeans building pyramids was denounced a few years ago by the Hayward, Wis.-based Native American newspaper, News from Indian Country.
Originally, Eschborn became captivated by Rock Lake after reading Joseph's books. But after the author's neo-Nazi past came to light, Eschborn was quick to dissociate the group from any connection to "racist ideologies."
Researchers press on
Meanwhile, Eschborn's group dives on, using a $25,000 underwater sonar device called a towfish, as well as teams of divers.
"There was nothing sharply defined," said Steve Wagner, 31, a diving club member from Appleton, Wis., after a recent expedition. "We saw some rocks over there," he added in a disappointed tone. "There's a weed bed over there and more rocks over there."
Despite such letdowns, the group presses on.
Around town, such uncertainty over the years has left people to draw their own conclusions.
At the downtown Sportsman's Pub, one man took a dim view: "The copper trade from Phoenicia? Are you kidding me?" he said. "This is pseudo-science. These are weirdos from Illinois. It's ludicrous."
But at a local garage, the Lake Mills Oil Co., owner Richard Hooper was far more inclined to believe in the sunken pyramids. "Oh, they exist," he said, puffing on a pipe filled with Captain Black. "They've been saying that for years."
Not that it would mean much in any case. "It's kind of like a tourist attraction," he said. "Or something to talk about when it's slow."