Orange’s Bat Roost
Dr. Charles Augustus Rosenheimer Campbell was a biologist and the Health Director for the City of San Antonio when he became interested in finding ways to try to control and possibly eradicate the mosquitoes that were carrying malaria.
After doing extensive research, he developed the idea of building towers to attract bats. Bats eat large quantities of mosquitoes. Campbell thought that if he could build something that would shelter bats he may be able to develop large colonies of bats that would then feed on mosquitoes and in addition would produce enough guano, rich fertilizer from bat droppings, to pay for the construction of the towers over time.
Campbell designed a tower that resembled a Dutch windmill without blades. Some would stand nearly 50 feet tall and be 20 feet square at the base, tapering upward to six feet square at the top. He calculated that the towers could shelter as many as 250,000 bats. The sides were covered with wooden shingles with an opening about half way up one side about two feet square and covered with a downward angling shade to keep light to a minimum. The tower would be high enough above ground to allow a wagon to be driven underneath a trap door that would be opened to allow the guano to fall into the wagon.
From 1907 to1929 there were fourteen towers built between Texas, Florida, Italy, and the Panama Canal Zone. Campbell wrote a book about the project called Bats, Mosquitoes, and Dollars. The book was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1919.
Only two of the Campbell towers remain. One is at Sugar Loaf Key, Florida. It was built by Richter Perky, who got the plans from Campbell. The other remaining original Campbell tower is in Comfort, Texas. The Texas tower was built by former San Antonio mayor Albert Steves on his family’s farm in 1918. The tower in Comfort was recognized by the Texas Historical Commission in 1981 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
One of Campbell’s towers was built in Shangri La in Orange, Texas by Lutcher Stark, who bought the plans from Campbell. Since the tower was built on the private property of Shangri La, it was not widely known about, outside of Orange.
In 1988, Eric Gerber, a columnist for the Houston Post, wrote an article about the bat towers and wrote that the tower in Comfort was the only one remaining in Texas. There had been one in San Antonio that had been destroyed by vandals in 1969, now the one in Comfort was the only tower in the state.
Gerber was contacted by Betty Wilson who wrote, “I am pleased to inform you that there is another bat tower in Texas. It is located within the city limits of Orange and stands next to a cemetery belonging to my family.” The cemetery referred to by Wilson is the Depwe Cemetery, located on the south side of Shangri La.
Gerber was also contacted by Emett McCoppin, an Orange native living in Houston. McCoppin accompanied Gerber on a trip to Orange and showed him the location of the tower.
“I spent about five minutes looking at the tower and knew it was an original Campbell tower. I later contacted the Texas Historical Commission. They had no knowledge of the tower either”, said Gerber. Due to the privacy of Shangri La no effort was made to try to obtain a historical designation for that tower.
The late Homer Stark said the tower was built by Lutcher Stark in about 1930, “possibly by someone from England.” The tower was about two stories tall with a single opening about halfway up one side and a trap door in the bottom.
“Dad was disappointed that the tower never attracted many bats. He hoped to get some rich fertilizer, but never got any of that”, said Homer Stark.
Over the years the tower at Shangri La stood unused and not maintained; it was allowed to just disintegrate over the years. A replica of the original tower has been built on the north end of Shangri La. It can be seen through the fence on Park Avenue at the intersection of Sunset Drive. The nature boat tour also goes near the tower.
At one time there were an estimated 5,000 bats in the tower. Snakes invaded the tower and the bats left. Efforts have been made to “snake proof” the tower and to once again attract bats.