Granny's Roughnecks

Out at Mack's, there are skeeters, gators, fried catfish, pig hunts, and freedom -- with a few strings attached

Occasionally, film crews have discovered the fish camp's rustic location. Parts of the Robert DeNiro flick Cape Fear were filmed here, explains Marshall, and the recently released Wild Things 2 includes several scenes shot on Danelle Lane, the road atop the levee that runs through the camp.

Business suffered after Nell died, both brothers say. They've shared responsibilities managing the camp and the trailer park, and both admit many compromises have had to be made.

"Granny always let me and my brother do man's labor and taught us how to live out here," Marshall says. "But as far as actually doing the book work for the business, she never taught us that."

John Keith Jones swings low.
Colby Katz
John Keith Jones swings low.
Way down yonder, not a-very far off: Mack's welcomes you.
Colby Katz
Way down yonder, not a-very far off: Mack's welcomes you.

The weekend hog roasts or fish fries ($10, all you can eat) are an important revenue source. The pork comes from the big wild boars captured in nearby swamps. Keith pulls out a hunk weighing about 50 pounds from a freezer chest under a gazebo.

"That's his neck," he says, hoisting it. "That's what it took to hold his head up. That's what he was swingin' my dogs around with."

The brothers fry up catfish from the canal. "I won't serve bass to the masses," Keith scoffs. People stand on the pier across from the store and fish for catfish all night. Just ask Rodd. "The record for one caught with beef liver out here is 12 pounds!" he chirps.

Like Keith and Marshall today, the sons of Mack Jones Sr. wrestled differences of opinion when it came to running the fish camp back in the 1950s. The way it ended up, Ralph Jones stayed up at the Krome Avenue location and Mack Jr. ended up on the other side of the road, down the lime-rock road that travels up and over a levee and continues for two-and-a-half miles of washboard ruts and chuckholes.

The camp itself sits about 400 yards -- or about nine telephone poles -- north of the Miami-Dade County line. In the early days, the fishing camp offered access along the canal up to Lake Okeechobee and down to Biscayne Bay. In 1948, Mack Jr. secured a liquor license and opened the one-room mahogany store that still serves fishermen and hunters. In 1954, Jones filed a homestead exemption; in 1956, he married Nell. Mack Jr., a union masonry man, worked construction in Miami while Nell minded the store.

"It was a rough life when they first started," remembers Tom Shirley, who retired as a Florida Fish and Game officer in 1985 after 30 years of service in the Everglades. "They had no electric out there. They had a little generator that didn't work half the time, so they came up the rough way."

Seventy-two-year-old Shirley still remembers his first journey down that lime-rock levee. He was about 4 years old, all alone back in the rumble seat of his parents' Model A Ford. "It was in the winter, and it was colder than hell," he recalls, along with the fact that "there was no fishing camp there."

In the mid-1920s, Mack Sr. actually began the first fishing camp along the canal. "As time went along, he farmed beans and squash and stuff," Shirley says. He pronounces squash as squarsh. "Then, bit by little bit, it became a little shanty."

Back then, the original Mack's Fish Camp rented out around 80 boats for fishermen. "The fishing was so... prolific," Shirley continues. "You had to call and make reservations, because many times they rented 'em out twice a day. That's during hard times, you know, in the '20s."

During the 1950s and '60s, Shirley frequented the out-of-the-way fish camp often as he patrolled for alligator poachers. By then, the outpost was heavily used, with fishermen and friends coming by for coffee or a meal. Then, as now, Mack's Fish Camp always felt full of family hospitality, not like a business.

"It was a gathering point," Shirley says. "If anybody wanted to go fishing or hunting, they'd just go there for a friendly visit. That was on account of [Nell's] beautiful personality. Nell was extremely kindhearted, and everybody loved her."

Hired hands and serious fishermen came in and lived at the camp from time to time, and the Joneses hauled in some old mobile homes and trailers and rented them out. As one of a handful of access points to Water Conservation Area Three in the Everglades, Mack's continued to see all sorts of boaters and bass fanatics, even after Water Management blocked the canal with a levee seven miles upstream.

Severe droughts followed in the late 1960s, and many Everglades fish camps went out of business, but even during slumps, Mack's stayed open. "Nell was just so friendly, people would always come out to pay a visit," Shirley remembers. "It helped 'em pay the bills."

So Nell and her husband made do in their little ramshackle assortment of cottages and trailers on top of the end of the levee. The pair adopted Danelle and Sissy, who grew up barefoot among the sawgrass and sugar cane. With comers and goers always coming and going, the little community was a lively place.

"If you couldn't get out and make money," Jerry says, "Granny would take care of you." Today, he does mechanical work for the brothers' fleet of trucks and ATVs and is called upon to perform upkeep and repairs on the trailers. "Put it this way: If Granny liked you, you were family."

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