The original developers of Temple Terrace aimed to be on the cutting edge of mosquito control in 1924, when malaria carried by the bloodsucking pests killed its share of pioneer Floridians.
They built a roosting tower on the banks of the Hillsborough River to attract bats, which consume thousands of flying insects each night. Though it's questionable whether the tower ever lured a single bat, the spooky structure became a favorite spot for generations of local kids.
"We would dare each other to walk down there and touch it and run back,'' recalls Grant Rimbey, who was 12 when an arsonist burned the tower down in 1979.
Thanks to the work of Rimbey and other community activists, the Temple Terrace Bat Tower may soon be back — if only partly.
They plan to start building a tower as soon as a site is secured, though they've raised just $15,000 of the estimated $45,000 to $60,000 they need. They hope that people who see the structure going up will be inspired to donate to finish the job.
Organizers think the new tower would attract more than 500,000 bats — and a lot of bat-loving tourists who like gathering after dark and watching the critters swarm out all at once. The two bat towers at the University of Florida in Gainesville, each capable of housing 250,000 bats, draw an estimated 10,000 visitors a year, Rimbey says.
"We're anxious to get going on it,'' says Tim Lancaster, a fellow participant of the Temple Terrace Bat Tower Project and president of the Temple Terrace Preservation Society.
About 70 enthusiasts met recently to "re-energize'' the project, Lancaster says. They hope to get permission from the Southwest Florida Water Management District to build the tower on its property on Harney Road near the Tampa Bypass Canal, across from the Hilltop Dog Park. Once they have a site and clearance to go ahead, the bat boosters plan to use the money in hand to build the tower's substructure to a height of 14 feet. They'll build more as donations of money, materials and labor come in.
The structure would replace the 40-foot tower, or "hygiostatic bat roost,'' built from the design of Dr. Charles Campbell, an early authority who felt that drawing bats to well-placed roosting towers would help to eradicate mosquitoes.
Campbell, a physician and a city bacteriologist for San Antonio, Texas, erected his first bat towers in Texas. Two still stand in that state; another is on Florida's Sugarloaf Key.
The plywood boards that formed the roosting crevices on the old tower were 2 inches apart. That's too roomy, say some experts, who doubt that bats actually roosted there. In the current design, the crevices have been tightened.
"They like them three-fourths of an inch apart, cramped, warm and cozy,'' says Rimbey.
It's not that Campbell goofed. His design worked fine for bats in Texas, says George Marks of the Florida Bat Conservancy. For some reason, Florida bats prefer tighter quarters.
Proponents originally planned to place the new tower at Riverfront Park but abandoned that spot in favor of the Harney Road site. Marks told them that while the animals like to be near water, they also need open surroundings, more like the Harney Road site.
The new tower would provide a home for the two (out of 13) species in Florida that roost in human-made structures — the evening bat and the Brazilian free-tailed bat, Marks says.
People who fear the flying mammals tend to think of vampire bats, the only blood-drinking species, Marks notes. The livestock pests dwell in southern Mexico and Central and South America. Those thumb-sized bats don't actually sink fangs into flesh; they scrape the skin with an incisor and lap up the small amount of blood they draw.
"They got caught up in the Dracula story a long time ago,'' Marks says, "and things haven't gone well for them since.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or [email protected]