Dreamers and schemers have always been drawn to the Florida Keys.
My favorite dreamer was a hustler named Richter Clyde Perky. In 1929, he envisioned the Florida Keys as a paradise that would draw thousands of visitors eager to part with their money to stay at a resort he was building on Lower Sugarloaf Key, about 17 miles from Key West.
Perky wasn’t a dummy. He knew the Keys might be a tough sell during the summer when mosquitoes swarmed off the mangroves thirsty for blood.
Perky spent $10,000 – a fortune during the Depression – to construct a 30-foot high tower to house mosquito-eating bats. The bats, he was sure, would eliminate the mosquitoes before they could eat the tourists on the resort he planned.
Perky hired carpenter Fred L. Johnson to do the work. Johnson has passed away, but decades ago I spent an entertaining day with him at his home in Key West listening to him. To build the bat tower he sank four sturdy posts into a poured concrete foundation. Around each post he placed metal guards to keep snakes and raccoons from climbing inside. On top of the posts he erected the tower. The outside frames were sturdy longleaf pine. The shingles were cypress. Inside were hundreds of pine slats – residence for bats -- and a metal chute to transport bat guano to the ground. It was a beautiful tower.
Perky sent to Texas for a foul-smelling bait that was guaranteed to attract bats. On March 15, 1929, as Perky watched, Fred Johnson climbed into the tower and deposited the foul-smelling bait in a good spot. Perky, looking natty in a white-linen suit he had purchased in Cuba, dedicated the tower as witnesses gathered and the gentlemen of the press scribbled into notebooks.
The Keys boast a native species of bats. There is no shortage. But no bat took advantage of the beautiful bat hotel that Perky had provided. Not then, not ever.
But Perky’s Bat Tower remains as a testament to dreams.
No signs tell you where it is. So pay attention. Driving south, pass the Sugarloaf Lodge and make a right on the first road. It’s paved briefly, then gravel. Veer to the right. Keep your eyes open. You’ll see it up ahead, the infamous Bat Tower.
Go during the day and snap a photograph. At night you’ll be swatting mosquitoes.