One of Washington's oldest puzzles has snared another victim.

Why, asks Lenora Borow of Silver Spring, do signs list two spellings for that 19th century mill at Park Road and Rock Creek? Is it Pierce Mill or Peirce Mill?

The answer is classic Washington, Lenora:

The National Park Service is still working on it after more than a century. They'll let you know.

But the delay hasn't come about because some bureaucrat is too busy doing crossword puzzles. The Park Service has been patiently and diligently trying to unravel a genuine historical mess. Here's the scoop:

The original owner of the mill was a fellow named Isaac Peirce (e before i). He was born in Chester County, Pa., in 1756. He settled north of Washington around 1800.

That would seem to settle the problem before it became a problem. However, Isaac's eighth son, Joshua (1795-1869), couldn't decide whether it was i-e or e-i. In one historical record obtained by the Park Service, he spells it two ways in the same paragraph! It doesn't get more confusing than that.

Park Service officials thought they might have a clue when they discovered the 1851 estate of Joshua's brother, Abner. In those legal papers, Abner spelled it P-I-E-R-C-E. That made it two votes for I-E to one for E-I. But majorities only count in horseshoes and Congress. Historians need it etched in granite.

Literally, that's where they found it.

Just a few months ago, Joshua's crypt was discovered in Rock Creek Church Cemetery. It said P-E-I-R-C-E right on the front. So the Park Service has decided that the official, absolute, positive, now-and-forever spelling is P-E-I-R-C-E. If a man can go to his God as E-before-I, Park Service officials reason, who are they to say otherwise?

Why, then, does the sign directly in front of the mill say "Peirce," while the three signs along the roads leading to the mill say "Pierce?"

Because new "Peirce" signs are on order from the federal prison in Atlanta, according to Rock Creek Park superintendent Jim Redmond. They aren't expected for about a year, Redmond says, because of a backlog.

So we will all remain confused until that year of Orwellian confusion, 1984.