Granny's Roughnecks

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

But tough times lay ahead. In 1982, with Danelle dead and two young children to raise, Nell was suddenly a mom again -- at 59. "She had so much love and care, she just took charge of everything and wound up taking care of the boys full-time," Shirley explains. He and Jerry remember the boys' father taking off up north. "I don't think they hardly have anything to do with him any longer," Shirley says. The twins, Jerry remembers, "were dropped off one weekend and never picked back up."

When the twins were teenagers, Jerry let it slip how their mom had died. "I just happened to mention that she shot herself," he says. As he discovered later that night, the boys hadn't been told that before. Nell came down to his trailer, furious. "Granny, I messed up there," Jerry apologized.

"Me and my brother were kind of sheltered as children," Marshall explains. "My grandmother gave up her retirement to adopt me and my brother so we wouldn't become orphans and get split up and in the custody of the state.

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.

"That's something I don't like talking about," he continues, suddenly looking downcast and sad. "It's something I've dealt with my whole life, but it's part of my past. Part of my family's past. There's a lot of unanswered questions."

After Mack Jr. died in 1985, Nell soldiered on beneath her towering, trademark, beehive hairdo. She didn't suffer troublemakers gladly. "If you happened to mess up and cuss inside her store," Jerry tells, "she'd throw you out!"

"Oh, she'd run off menfolk with a broom," recalls Tom Shirley, "busting them across their back!"

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew's winds left trailers damaged and the camp without power and running water for nearly three months. Nell and the boys toughed it out at the home of Tom and Naomi Shirley in Southwest Ranches. The camp hung tight. "Our family has always called this place God's Country, and the Lord has always looked out for us," Marshall says. "We've always had guardian angels, and Granny is one of them now."

"We had a community bathtub over by the canal," Jerry laughs, "and when we cooked a meal, we cooked for everybody. We used up all the frozen meat so it wouldn't have time to spoil."

After Andrew, the little compound felt hardier than ever. Its biggest threat, however, had just begun to fester. One of the camp's long-term residents, a man who Keith says "used to take me hunting all the time," ended up in the only place at Mack's Fish Camp more dangerous than an alligator's jaws.

He ended up on the wrong side of Granny.

Marshall remembers the man well. "He was like a son to my grandmother," he says. But when the family friend picked a fight with a much smaller man one night, Marshall says, and "hit the little guy with a shovel and laid him wide open, my grandmother said, 'You get the hell out of here and never come back. '"

A week and a half later, Jerry recalls, life at Mack's was thrown into chaos. The spring of 1996 brought agents from the Florida Department of Health and Broward County Code Enforcement to the local landmark, tipped off (presumably by the evicted camp resident) to problems with the community's electrical and septic systems. For almost half a century, Mack's had operated beneath the radar of public scrutiny. Until receiving an anonymous telephone complaint about sewage leaks and faulty wiring, a health department administrator admitted, "We didn't know they existed."

Its vulnerabilities discovered, the tiny town's nonconforming violations meant the state could come in and shut it down.

"They all came and hit her all at once," Marshall begins. "We had a little problem. Well, we had a big problem with that."

The brothers estimate that Nell spent nearly $30,000 installing above-ground septic tanks for the camp and around $80,000 to bring the electrical system up to code. At Jones Trailer Park, it took more than $130,000 to make it all legit.

"It's paid for, over and done with," Marshall says. "Still, it cost my grandmother her life savings and basically the end of her life."

After bringing every trailer up to compliance with the law, Nell Jones was 77 years old and exhausted. One weekend a little more than two years later, she complained of chest pains. Family members took her to a West Broward hospital, and she never returned. Within 36 hours of the onset of her symptoms, she succumbed to massive heart failure.

On her deathbed, Marshall says, a tracheotomy tube had been placed in Nell's throat, and she couldn't talk. "But she was mouthing something to us steadily," he says. "She kept trying to say something to us, but we couldn't get it. I don't know what she was trying to say."

Whatever she was trying to communicate, she managed to imprint her religious and moral fortitude upon the twins to this day. "We've always been Christians, and the Lord looked out for us," Marshall says. "I do believe in karma, and we try to maintain good karma out here."

Nell's death changed Mack's Fish Camp forever. Without her direction, the thousands she poured into making the camp stable and secure seemed for naught. For old-timers like Tom Shirley, Granny's demise nearly snuffed out the soul of the camp. "I miss her terribly, to this day," he sniffs. "She was so much a part of my life and others'."

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