Living

From sponges to bats

J.V. Harris, a doctor operating in Key West, also had a farm on Sugarloaf Key. Circa 1897, he began experimenting with sponge cultivation. A lucrative business, by the 1890s, the sponge industry was bringing roughly one million dollars a year into Monroe County.

Harris’ work attracted the attention of the head of the United States Bureau of Fisheries. A man named Dr. H.F. Moore. Moore, too, was interested in sponges, and because of his position, was able to secure government capital to move forward with a project to determine if it was feasible to commercially farm the sponge.

Moore’s growing technique utilized concrete disks with a hole in the middle through which sponges were attached. The concrete disks were prepared on Harris’ Sugarloaf Key property. They would then be "planted" in the shallows offshore of Sugarloaf Key and monitored. Though slow growing, by 1908 Moore had determined to his own satisfaction that the commercial farming of sponges was indeed possible with the single caveat that sponge poachers could be kept at bay.

In the meantime, Charles Chase, a Londoner who had been staying in Key West, had learned of Moore and his work with sponges. His interest piqued, Chase partnered with his brother George and a friend named Henry Bate and the group purchased the Sugarloaf Key property from Harris where Moore’s sponge experimentation had been ongoing. Chase and his partners moved forward with Moore’s sponge work and developed the Florida Keys Sponge and Fruit Company.

By 1912, a small community of perhaps 100 had grown around the sponge company, and the community became known as Chase, Florida (it would later be known as Perky, Florida). The Florida Keys Sponge and Fruit Company, that either grew or was planning to grow Key limes at some point, was doing well. The sponges were maturing nicely offshore and the company was looking forward to realizing a nice profit.

Unfortunately, the political climate in Europe was changing, and the English financial backers of the sponge farm diverted their funds to the war effort against Germany. Without support, the Florida Keys Sponge and Fruit Company went bankrupt. Richter Clyde Perky, a real estate salesman working for Miami Beach’s Tatum Brothers, learned of the property and purchased the sponge company, as well 23,000 acres in Monroe County that included much of Sugarloaf Key.

While Perky originally intended to continue operating the sponge company, he abandoned the idea, and the sponges that had been growing offshore. The sponges were eventually harvested by Key West hookers. Hookers, in this case, referring to the men who would stand in their small skiffs and harvest the sponge with the help of a long-handled hook (which looks more like a fork) measuring five inches across.

The arrival of State Road 4A in 1928, what would become known as the Overseas Highway, caused Perky to reconsider his thoughts on the sponge and move forward with an eye toward the tourist industry. Perky developed a fishing camp as well as two ideas he hoped would improve his business plan.

First, he paid Monroe County to create a road that would connect his fish camp to SR 4A. The highway’s original path skirted Sugarloaf Key and ran along the island’s Atlantic edge. The modern Overseas Highway, located much closer to what was once Perky’s fish camp, follows the path of Flagler’s Over-Sea Railway.

Second, Perky attempted to address the area’s mosquito problem. Perky had read about a man in Texas, Dr. Charles Campbell of San Antonio, who had published a book called Bats, Mosquitoes, and Dollars, detailing the important role bats played in the control of mosquito populations. Campbell also promoted a bat tower of his own design. Several, reportedly, had already been constructed around Texas. Perky sent away for instructions.

Perky’s bat tower was completed in 1929 and fitted with a plaque that read, "Dedicated to good health at Perky, Fla., by Mr. and Mrs. R.C. Perky, March 15, 1929." In addition to the building instructions, Perky sent away for a special blend of Dr. Campbell’s bat guano advertised as a bat attractant.

Perky even sent away for a supply of bats, though the Florida Keys are home to at least one species, the Velvety free-tailed bat. Perky placed the guano in the tower and then released the bats. Unfortunately, the stench of the guano lasted longer than the bats, which, upon release, simply flew off and away from the tower.

While Perky’s fish camp disappeared decades ago (Perky died in 1940), Perky’s road, Sugarloaf Boulevard, is still a thoroughfare and the bat tower still stands, empty of bats, a good deal worse for wear, and in need of historical preservation. Found in just about every guidebook written about the Florida Keys, Perky’s bat tower remains one of the island chain’s unique off-the-beaten path roadside attractions.

To find it, look for the sign advertising the Sugarloaf Airport, turn at the appropriately named Bat Tower Road near Mile Marker 17, and drive until the road dead ends.

Brad Bertelli is an Upper Keys historian and curator of the Keys History & Discovery Center. The author of five books on Florida and Florida Keys history, his column appears every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at whypanic@aol.com.

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