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Sunday Favorites: The Bass Lab Legacy

Henry Waldo Norris with a spotted eagle ray.

ENGLEWOOD -- When John Foster Bass Jr. and his wife, Else Bass, established the Bass Biological Laboratory and Zoological Research Supply Facility Co., in Englewood between 1931 and 1932, it was the first full-time marine laboratory on the mainland in Southwest Florida. Research from the lab is now located in the world-renowned Mote Marine Laboratory, where the records help modern day scientist develop goals to bring the local watershed back to its original glory.


Fast forward to 1988, when Mote Marine biologist Ernest D. Estevez received a tip that historical archives from “an old science lab” were about to be demolished to make way for one of the many developments that Florida has become famous for. 


Estevez hastily went to investigate the property and was astounded by what he found. Inside an old building was an extensive collection of documents chronicling research of Charlotte Harbor from the early 1930s until the Bass Lab closed in 1944. There were collection logs, field notes, even poetry attributed to lab employees. The records were in complete disarray, and 50-year-old specimens cluttered the shelves.


Estevez immediately began snapping photos of the interior of the small building, but stopped when he realized the specimens were embalmed in toxic chemicals that had been exposed to the intense Florida heat for decades. The flash of his camera could have sparked a reaction that would have blown the whole place up. Estevez had to hire a HAZMAT team to remove the preserved species.


John and Else Bass’ project was more than a lab. It was a complex that included laboratories, a workshop, a house for internationally distinguished scientists, a water tower, a windmill, a boathouse and a series of log cabins set among saw palmettos and slash pines, according to the Charlotte County Historical Society


Estevez was rummaging through documents inside the first and smallest cabin, the “Cookie House,” which served as the personal workshop of John Bass. The Cookie House received its name from the cross-section of cuts of wood that resembled cookies when mounted in mortar. The building technique was popular in Wisconsin, but a rarity in Florida. To this day, there is no other structure like it in Florida. 


Estevez transported his findings to a place where they would be safe – his screen porch. Night after night he would go through the material, listening to the sound of crickets as the hours passed. He told Emily Leinfuss, a journalist for Sarasota Magazine, that some of the pages were so delicate; they would crumble like dust when he touched them. Slowly, Estevez began separating and organizing the documents.


 The Cookie House served as John Bass's personal laboratory.

“As I spent countless nights on the screened porch, I realized more and more of these things were really substantial and significant,” he told Leinfuss. 


Those documents that Estevez read provided incite into the past. In the early years at the lab, Bass had trouble obtaining alcohol to preserve the specimens in – as it was illegal in the U.S. during the time of prohibition. Wildfires threatened the facility and during WWII Bass wrote Washington to receive more rations in order to serve the many scientists, naturalists and zoologists that visited the facility.


Over the next 20 years, Mote Marine archivists have worked at preserving the history. The have conducted verbal interviews with former lab employees, organized and chronicled the information and began digitizing many of the archives.  


“We are trying to increase longevity and arrange them in the way that they were created,” said Erin Mahaney, archivist at Arthur Vining Davis Library at Mote Marine Laboratory. “These documents provides us with a picture of the post WWII development of ecological health and depletion of species – they are the link to the future of our marine ecosystem.”


Rays and sharks caught in Charlotte Harbor.

As for John Bass’s workshop, the Cookie House, it was moved to Cedar Point Park in 2006 from Bass property in New Point Comfort area where it remained in disrepair. The work is still under construction; it has just begun, thanks to funding from the Lemon Bay Historical Society. 


Bass’s legacy has also been passed down to future generations. Charlotte County Public Schools is working to create a program where students use the historical data to determine the future of area estuaries.  


CCPS, the Sierra Club, and a variety of other local groups plan to engage extracurricular student programs, but also comply with the science and research requirements mandated by the Florida Department of Education. 


The discovery of Bass's work was, at best, a stroke of luck. Estevez could not be reached for comment, so it's unclear where the tip came from that would lead to his stumbling upon Bass's work. 


But, it's clear that Bass's work was ahead of it's time; without that tip, it could have been an effort lost to the ages. Florida is an ever-shifting landscape, and while Bass was making his discoveries, charting his progress, the state was still up for grabs. Without that tip, Bass might have been lost forever. 



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