January-February 2021

Animal farm

A Montgomery County park was once a government location for studying diseases in animals

Photo illustration by Alice Kresse

At the end of Norwood Drive in Chevy Chase, in the middle of a modern recreation area, stands a curious relic of the community’s past. The hulking, early 20th century brick building, looming over playgrounds and tennis courts, is a reminder of when the federal government first came to town—and the consternation the move later caused.

That first federal agency to come to Bethesda (Norwood Drive was part of Bethesda back then) was the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The facility? The Animal Disease Research Station.

Bethesda of the 1890s enticed D.C.’s urban dwellers with the promise of fresh air, clean water and still undeveloped green hills, a welcome contrast to the cloying stench of the city. Bethesda’s setting, close to multiple departmental headquarters in D.C. and a straight shot by trolley up Wisconsin Avenue, made it an ideal spot for relocating federal facilities from the city to the suburbs.

Since the 1880s, the USDA had conducted tests on animals at the department’s research station in Northeast Washington. The facility soon proved too small to manage the dozens of ongoing studies of infectious diseases in farm animals. In 1897, the station moved to an undeveloped 18-acre tract west of Wisconsin Avenue and south of Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda.

Buildings went up in a flurry, with laboratories, breeding houses, dozens of barns and stables both large and small, isolation pens and corrals spreading out across the acreage. The operation grew quickly; in 1906, a substantial and fireproof 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 swath of animal diseases, beginning with a study on the contagiousness of pleuro-pneumonia in cattle. Soon the work expanded to include dozens of trials seeking cures for anthrax, swine plague, hog cholera, hoof-and-mouth disease, tuberculosis and more. Infected animals were housed all around the facility.

Other USDA programs found a home in Bethesda, including studies in animal husbandry and selective breeding. One of the more notable experiments 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 the scientists to institute a project aimed at crossbreeding 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 a “zebhorse”—alternatively known as a zebroid or a zorse. After five years, the project was scrapped.

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

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