Driving down the Keys from mainland Florida, if you should happen to turn right at the Sugarloaf Lodge at mile marker 17 and travel a short distance, you’ll find yourself facing a shingled tower rising out of the surrounding foliage. Somewhat weather-beaten, it is nevertheless a monument to all the great ideas hatched in the Keys in days gone by … and in days yet to come.
The year was 1929. While much of America was dealing with bank failures and the Great Depression, Richter Perky faced a problem less earth-shattering but more immediately irritating: mosquitoes.
Perky was the largest landowner in the Keys in the late 1920s, and his pet project lay right about on what is now the 17-mile marker — the town of Perky.
It was designed as a fishing retreat for wealthy tourists. It had a lodge. It had a marina and a restaurant and guest cottages. And it had so many enormous mosquitoes that if an unwary tourist put his hand against a screen, the other side of the screen would almost immediately display a black handprint made of the hungry insects.
Not an ideal setup for tourism, no matter how good the fishing. But Richter Clyde Perky was not a man to let something like that get him down. Somewhere he ran across a book called “Bats, Mosquitoes, and Dollars” — and Dr. Charles A.R. Campbell entered his life.
The upshot? Perky sent to Campbell for the plans for the bat roost, which Campbell reportedly forwarded free of charge, and construction on the Keys’ tower began in March of 1929.
According to the doctor’s specifications, the 30-foot-high structure was located in a quiet area and left unpainted (why did Campbell think bats preferred unpainted buildings?). It looked like a tall, angular tapered edifice on four posts, with a louvered bat entrance. Completed in September of 1929, it was said to have cost Perky nearly $10,000 to build.
But the end of the construction did not bring about an end to Perky’s mosquito problem. Bats, it seems, can’t easily be transplanted from one home to another — so a secret “bat bait” was provided by Campbell (for a small fee, of course) to entice bats to the tower.
The bait reportedly had a base of bat guano plus the ground-up sex organs of female bats. According to Perky’s construction supervisor, it smelled like nothing else on earth.
The bats were supposed to be irresistibly drawn by the bait, adopt the tower as their home, and leave it each night to devour mosquitoes for dinner. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out that way.
Keys legend offers two versions of what actually happened. Some say Perky installed bats that flew away almost instantly, never to return. Others say the bait, no doubt becoming riper and riper under the Keys’ subtropical sun, remained in the tower for a year without attracting a single wandering bat.
When Richter Clyde Perky wrote to Dr. Campbell for another box of bait he received word that the doctor had died, taking the secret of his formula for bat bait with him to the grave.
These days, the Keys’ Mosquito Control people are doing a pretty good job of eradicating the pesky insects. Perky, who with the rest of the population came to appreciate the humorous aspects of his tower, has long since died.
The bat tower, however, is now a beloved local landmark — and still stands tall behind the Sugarloaf Lodge, a mute testimonial to a great Keys idea.