Animal research

Montgomery County Park was once the site of an animal research center

Photographic illustration by Alice Kresse

At the end off Norwood Drive in Chevy Chase, in the middle of a modern recreation area, stands a curious relic of the community’s past. The imposing brick building from the turn of the 20th century, which overlooks the playgrounds and tennis courts, is a reminder of the federal government’s arrival in town and the dismay the move later caused.

The first federal agency to come to Bethesda (Norwood Drive was part of Bethesda at the time) was the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Ease? The Animal Disease Research Station.

Bethesda of the 1890s drew DC townspeople with the promise of fresh air, clean water, and undeveloped green hills, a welcome contrast to the city’s sickening stench. Bethesda’s setting, close to several departmental headquarters in DC and a straight shot on the streetcar to Wisconsin Avenue, made it an ideal location to move federal facilities from the city to the suburbs.

Since the 1880s, the USDA had conducted animal testing at the department’s research station in northeast Washington. The facility quickly proved too small to handle the dozens of ongoing infectious disease studies in farm animals. In 1897, the station moved to 18-acre undeveloped land west of Wisconsin Avenue and south of Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda.

The buildings were built in bursts, with laboratories, ranches, dozens of barns and stables, large and small, isolation enclosures and corrals spanning the area. The operation developed rapidly; in 1906, a large fire-retardant brick building replaced the old wooden laboratory. Dozens of other buildings followed, including a large guinea pig house for hundreds of test animals that were fed oats and corn harvested from surrounding farms.

Experiments at the station covered a wide range of animal diseases, starting with a study on the contagiousness of pleuropneumonia in cattle. Soon, the work expanded to include dozens of trials aimed at curing anthrax, swine fever, swine fever, foot-and-mouth disease, tuberculosis and more. The infected animals were housed all around the facility.

Other USDA programs have found their way to Bethesda, including breeding studies and selective breeding. One of the most notable experiences began when King Menelik of Abyssinia presented President Theodore Roosevelt with the unusual gift of a male zebra. Roosevelt had the zebra transported to the Bethesda facility, where the president encouraged scientists to institute a project to cross the zebra with a horse to create a new and improved farm animal. A mare from a local farm was selected to mate. The result born at the Bethesda facility was named the “zebra horse”, alternatively known as the zebroid or zorse. After five years, the project was abandoned.

As USDA programs in Bethesda have grown, so have the surrounding suburbs. New developments appeared in rapid succession in the 1920s and 1930s, eventually surrounding the old research station. Residents began to complain about the smells, flies and rats emanating from the facility. Civic groups have banded together to demand that the government end operations and that the land be turned over to the county for use as a park. The government nodded and moved to a 475 acre farm in Beltsville, where the USDA is still based (it’s now on 6,600 acres).

By 1936, most of the supplies and animals had been moved from Bethesda. However, the large and elaborate brick laboratory, with its rounded turret, toothed cornice and ornamental arches, remains in the middle of Norwood Park. The building is now rental property for parties and private events and a reminder of the community’s agrarian past.