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To the locals, it was the “Monkey Farm.” To the Boy Scouts, it was the “Ape Farm.” Shrouded in mystery, it spawned tales that reached King Kong-size proportions around the flickering firelight at nearby Camp Echockotee.
But this was no primate zoo. Officially, it was the Yale Laboratories of Primate Biology. And there was serious research, or monkey business, if you will, going on there. For example, scientists found they could change hysterical chimps into docile creatures by removing the forepart of the brain, according to newspaper accounts. That led some doctors to perform prefrontal lobotomy operations on mentally ill humans.
Robert Yerkes, a naturalist and Yale University psychologist, chose the then-sleepy town of Orange Park for the center because of its mild climate and inexpensive land. It was established in 1930 on 182 wooded acres on the south side of Kingsley Avenue, a narrow dirt road.
The 10-acre compound was surrounded by a 7-foot galvanized chain-link fence, barbed wire and a thick wall of azaleas. The 2-story main lab was built of hollow core tile with stucco. The various buildings contained offices, a library, a kitchen and work areas.
The chimp quarters were in a long building of reinforced concrete with heavy steel wire fencing. It had eight animal rooms with adjacent outdoor cages so they could enjoy the sunshine. There was also a nursery for young chimps, a maternity ward and a small hospital.
If the lab scientists couldn’t handle their medical needs, they took them to physicians rather than veterinarians. One chimp had to be rushed to a Jacksonville hospital emergency room with a broken arm, a 1976 Times-Union story said. Few people were aware that it was a chimp under the white sheet.
Then there was a chimp who made international headlines. A scientist and his wife raised the chimp in their home from a newborn and treated her to a human lifestyle, teaching her to do such things as play the piano. The scientist was known to dress her in a pink outfit and take her with him when he drove to the post office and other places.
But the community operated in virtual seclusion with Yerkes shying away from the spotlight.
“It is true we do not court publicity,” Yerkes wrote in 1930. “Far too often it results in misunderstanding, unenlightened criticism or, worse still, ridicule.”
In 1941, Yerkes retired and the facility was renamed The Yerkes Laboratory of Primate Biology.
Because of the hush-hush atmosphere, its location near Camp Echockotee compounded its notoriety, leading to tall tales of mad scientists.
“It was in the middle of nowhere,” said John Bowles, former Orange Park town manager. “There were a lot of stories about this ape farm, though I don’t think they were of much substance.”
As a Boy Scout, Bowles camped at Echockotee during the summers of 1956-58. In the quiet of night, the least sound would make you think something was coming to get you, he said.
Occasionally, a chimp did escape from his cage, but it was rare when one was able to climb the electrified fence into the outside world, a 1962 Times-Union story said. Once, a chimp managed to get over the fence when the current was turned off to install a septic tank. He stayed out only a few minutes before he was taken by the hand and led back into the compound.
Nelson Hellmuth owns the Granary Whole Foods grocery at 1738 Kingsley Ave. It’s been open since 1979 but occupies a house built in 1887 that once served as the lab caretaker’s quarters.
“Kingsley was country when I was growing up. It was hidden away,” he said of the compound. “You couldn’t see it from the road.”
One thing he does remember seeing as a boy was the scientist driving around with his pet chimp.
The lab for all its early secrecy and speculation gained an international reputation for its study of chimp growth, development and comparative psychology. It was a respected affiliate of Yale and described as the world’s second-largest lab for primate research, according to Times-Union archives.
“Because of the work at Orange Park, more is known about the chimpanzee than about any other animal except the white rat,” Science magazine reported in 1956, the year Yerkes died.
Yale gave the lab to Emory University in 1956. In 1962, some of the experiments being conducted were on hepatitis, the relationship of diets to hardening of the arteries and the effects of radiation, the Times-Union reported.
In 1965, Emory moved the lab to Atlanta, and it got still another name — the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.
A newsletter put out by Emory at the time of the move said the colony contained what was probably the largest collection of apes in the world. A count showed 11 gorillas, 27 orangutans, 67 chimps and more than 100 monkeys of 20 different species. The newest gorilla in the colony was described as a movie has-been. During her younger days, she starred in Tarzan films.
As for the property, developer Marvin Whilhite built the Foxwood subdivision on part of the land Yerkes acquired. He developed an office park on what was once the compound but remodeled three of the original buildings, Hellmuth said.