Olivenhain Going to Bat, Ending a Creepy Footnote to Folklore


For almost a century, the bats have provided a creepy footnote to the history of the Olivenhain town hall, a sturdy redwood meeting place built in 1895 by the German farmers who settled this North County community.

Old-timers say the migratory creatures moved into the rafters of the rustic hall not long after the last nails were pounded in. Soon, they became part of the folklore of the place--on some nights diving down by the scores, herky-jerky, to startle square dancers or meetings held by the eerie light of a kerosene lamp.

“They were always part of the local color--the trick was to keep the bats out of your hair while the meeting went on,” said Dave McCollom, assistant manager of the Olivenhain Water District, which met in the hall until 1962.

“Sometimes, when the bat guano would start dropping to the floor, you knew it was time to call a quit to things.”


Recently, however, after several bats were found to have rabies, officials decided that the furtive, furry animals would have to go. Last week, they placed some green, mesh screening around the bottom of the roof of the hall--protection that officials hope will have the opposite effect of a roach motel:

The bats check out, but they can’t check back in.

“We’ve also built four bat houses in the surrounding trees that hold 100 bats each,” Olivenhain Town Council President Bob McAndrews said. “We’re not trying to kill them off, just move them someplace nearby. These creatures really don’t hurt anything, they actually help man by eating a lot of bad bugs.”

The relocation of the colony of Mexican free-tailed bats, which measure about 6 inches from head to tail, is part of a project to refurbish the town hall with a $136,000 grant from the state Department of Parks and Recreation’s Office of Historic Preservation.

But some veteran users of the hall say the bats are too vital a part of the history of the venerable building and should be left undisturbed.

“I say, ‘Leave them alone,’ ” said 79-year-old Howard Golem, an ex-cattle rancher who still sits on the water district board. “Thousands of people have been exposed to those bats over the years, and nothing has happened to them.

“They stay to themselves during the day. And they won’t bother anyone if you don’t bother them. So what’s the point?”

Local bat advocates say the nocturnal creatures have been given a bad rap--not only on the possible spread of rabies but, because they most often are seen at night, they have illogically been associated Dracula and the devil.

Harley Denk, 68, says he recalls seeing the bats in the hall as far back as the 1930s. He says he can understand the concern over the creatures.

“Back in the Depression, we used to have a bat party now and then,” he said. “We’d get up in the rafters with clubs and tennis rackets and kill hundreds of them to keep the population down.”

Officials eventually installed a dropped ceiling to stop the bat droppings from bombarding people who gathered in the A-frame hall for 4-H Club get-togethers, weddings and Halloween and Christmas parties.

“But these days,” Denk said, “with people getting more conscious of diseases and sprays and lawsuits, they just feel uncomfortable with the bats flying around.”

The most recent bat attack began last summer when several dead and injured bats were found on the floor of the building. A dozen of the 97 bats eventually tested were found to have rabies, so a Berkeley bat expert was called in. He suggested using the nets as a way move the bats without harming them.

The bat houses, placed near the top of four nearby trees, are about the size of a back-yard bird house but have three compartments in which the creatures can cluster.

“It’s going real well,” McAndrews said of the relocation project. “Sometimes, bats will ignore these types of bat houses for a year before they decide to move in. But it looks like they’re moving in faster than that.”

Some bats have stubbornly stuck to their crevices inside the building. Bat guano still litters the floor in some places and has stained parts of the walls of the hall, which has been declared a California landmark.

And, 95 years after they first moved in, the bats of the Olivenhain town hall are still startling people--as if they were the ones who deserved squatter’s rights.

“When we first came in here, they scared the daylight out of us,” said 20-year-old Eric Barton, a worker on the refurbishment project. “One day, we lifted one of the shutters from the window and about five bats flew out at us.

“It’s kind of funny to think now. We took off running around the room, the bats were flying around overhead. Back then, we’d never seen a bat before. But we’re kind of getting used to them now.”