Granny's Roughnecks

What would Granny do? Probably take him to the hospital. But tonight, stitches and duct tape will have to suffice for Al Michael. Michael was ATVing a recent Saturday out by Mack's Fish Camp when he rolled his machine and split his scalp wide open.

"Anyone else would have laid there and bled out," says shirtless, shoeless John Keith Jones, who runs the camp with his twin brother, Marshall Heath Jones. "But he's hard. What he took today, he took like a man." After the accident, Keith -- no shrinking violet himself -- cleaned up Michael's injury and used six sutures to stitch his head back up.

"Not a moan or a twitch," Keith marvels of Michael's composure. "Not even an ouch."

Michael stands wobbly and woozy, his hair matted with dried blood, poking through the camouflage-colored duct tape Jones used to dress the wound.

"Seriously," Jones implores his patient, "if you can, try not to sleep. You could have a concussion."

"All right," Michael nods. He's a regular here. He knows the drill.

John Keith Jones is no doctor, but he's handy with stitches. His feet are always getting cut on broken glass or barbed wire, and he and his dogs often take nasty wounds inflicted by the wild pigs they hunt out in the muck and sawgrass that surround their remote compound. The 25-year-old twins have lived at Mack's Fish Camp since they were 3, raised by their grandmother. Today, they rent out boats, trailers, and RV hookups; provide guide services for fishing and hunting parties; and take folks for airboat and swamp-buggy rides. And they live off the land.

Reality dictates that they must go into town once in a while. Every week or so, they have to make a trip to Pembroke Pines, Miami, Hollywood (where they attended school), or Weston. Going into town is a shock to the system, Marshall explains. "It's like hearing static. Everybody's trying to get where they're going. Nobody has time to say hello or how you doing. I hate that."

But stark, raw, real life for the twins is rooted firmly in the camp. Tonight, Keith, standing inside the low, narrow store that's the hub of Mack's Fish Camp, is still slow-cooking part of a 550-pound wild pig outside on an open-air fire. There's a primal quality to the scene, with the pervasive smell of meat cooking on a fire and the squeaks and whirs of birds bedding down in the brush, that stirs forgotten memories of a time when man was much closer to nature.

A strapping young dude from Miami presents Keith with a long, pointed spear for his next hunt. Keith gratefully thanks the fellow hunter but later admits: "I like to knife-hunt more than anything else. I love to see the blood spill on the ground from its heart."

Things are a little rougher at Mack's Fish Camp since the twins' grandmother, Nell Jones, the official First Lady of the Swamp, died five years ago. But Keith and Marshall stay faithful, in their fashion, to Jones' tradition of hospitality and backcountry rectitude.

Keith and his dogs caught up with this particular tasty pig -- currently cooking over chunks of mahogany, hickory, and oak -- a few weeks ago, just before the sun came up after tracking it all night through the swamps. Where did they catch up to it? "The gettin' place," he says. His lead dog, a Catahoola cur nicknamed Mr. Unstoppable, has been torn up good by the pigs and their long tusks. Keith will stitch him up and put the dog back to work, so the dog can continue to bring down those pigs, biting their ears mercilessly with bloody sound effects. "You can hear the cartilage in his mouth," Keith says proudly.

He laughs, patting his dog's back. "Sometimes I call him Stank," he says, "'cause he puts a lot of stank on them pigs."

On weekend nights, a few minutes after the final slice of the sun sinks beneath the horizon, mosquitoes descend like falling ash, clinging to eyelashes and biting through clothing. The air fills with the thunder of three- and four-wheelers bogging across the sawgrass and Southern rock anthems like "Bad to the Bone" and "Sweet Home Alabama." Sometimes, around 3 or 4 in the morning, Keith and Marshall turn on a floodlight to illuminate the canal (and any alligators) and swing out over the water.

Mack's Fish Camp sits atop a levee that's maybe 50 feet across. The wide Miami Canal lies on one side, a sea of swamp stretching all the way south to the Tamiami Trail. On the other side, just inches behind the trailers, stands a tall row of sawgrass and millions more behind that, extending all the way north past Everglades Holiday Park and Alligator Alley. To the west is the massive marsh that makes up the vast expanse of the Everglades. Only to the east is there any vestige of civilization. When the boys were growing up, the last tendrils of development barely stretched to Flamingo Road. Now, the blazing sodium lights from Pines Boulevard are visible off in the distance at night.

But it's still a kind of idyllic, young-man's paradise, where Huck and Tom would have fit right in.

Several swamp residents -- especially the kids -- swim in the alligator-clogged canal. "As dark as it looks," says Keith, throwing bread balls in the water to attract fish, "when you're way down at the bottom looking up, it's crystal-clear." Just keep your eyes peeled.

Sometimes, a party atmosphere takes over, one that Granny, who raised the twins out here in the middle of nowhere and ran Mack's Fish Camp with a schoolmarm's discipline, may not have approved.

"It's a different breed of cat that comes here now," says Jerry Boswell, who makes his home in the last shack at the far end of the camp, before the road dwindles to a trail that disappears into the bush along the canal. The sun-wrinkled Vietnam vet has lived at Mack's Fish Camp for 19 years. His burly arms sport a few fading tattoos that match his gray ponytail. Still, "unless they shut this place down," Jerry swears, "the only way I'm going out of here is in a box. "

Tonight, Jerry's avoiding the drinking and hollering a few yards from his dwelling. So is Marshall. He's in Miami at a wedding with his wife, Nicole, and daughter, Love Lea Jones, in tow. In the past, Marshall would whoop it up just as much or more than his slightly crazier twin, but now, with a 5-month-old and a business to run, waking up to a road strewn with beer and tequila bottles makes him unhappy.

The two operate on opposite ends of the same energetic wavelength.

Though each is equally knowledgeable about environmental issues affecting their parcel of property in the Everglades and acutely aware of the ramifications of intervention by the government, Keith's conversation tends to devolve into rants inevitably punctuated by "anyway, to make a long story short..." and studded with boasts. "I've never lost a fight, ever," he brags. "I want to fight Shannon Briggs barefoot."

His brother, on the other hand, is more likely to nod sagely during discussion, occasionally interjecting a concise, "Yes, absolutely" or "I definitely agree." But barefoot and shirtless works for Marshall too. Wiry where Keith is hefty and brawny, Marshall appears to use calm to counter-balance his twin's natural aggression. Though both share similar athletic builds, Keith appears untamed, and Marshall -- though flexing a Marine's toughness -- comes off as gentle and soft-spoken.

Instead of canceling each other out, the twins seem to create an electrical spark, like touching battery cables together. When the two are in close proximity -- even outdoors, let alone in the cramped store -- the air sometimes crackles with tension.

"They're definitely mirror twins," Jerry chuckles. When it seems safe, Keith is more likely to let his guard down and drop indiscriminate f-bombs, even as he cautions visitors not to use the word at all. Around his 312-year-old daughter, Brianna, he's extracautious.

For kids -- almost always barefoot -- growing up at Mack's Fish Camp puts them in touch with nature, not Nintendo. Ten-year-old fisherman Rodd Brown bubbles with excitement over the prospect of living out his days at Mack's as well. Watching him pull bass out of the water all afternoon in his stocking feet is a flashback to the kind of idyllic childhoods of a half-century past. Brown, who attends elementary school in western Hollywood, hasn't yet brought many of his school chums out to see the paradise he calls home. "They'd want to come here every day," he observes.

"A lot of people are afraid of this kind of road," Marshall concurs. "Especially if it's close to dusk, they wonder what's going to happen, 'cause you can't see what's down here at the end."

Anyone not put off by the forbidding gravel entrance is inevitably entranced, its residents claim.

"I'll say this," Keith testifies. "Anybody who makes it all the way down that road once comes back." Doogie is one such recidivist. He doesn't do much of anything but sit around with a beer in his hand, but lately, he's become a camp fixture. Not long ago, after he passed out one night, an orange afro wig was placed upon his inebriated head and incriminating photos were taken.

Tonight, after braving a torrent of mid-May mosquitoes gearing up for the summer's feeding frenzy, Doogie stumbles into the store.

"Hey, Keith," he says, "You got any skeeter juice?" As Keith hunts down some Off behind the counter, something inside the pine-paneled walls scratches and scurries. "Swamp rats," he says. "Just as furry and cute as a damn rabbit."

There is no place like Mack's Fish Camp. It feels like an old, sepia-toned newsreel about the pioneer days has come to life. Visit once and it's almost impossible to stop thinking about it, even days later.

"It burns itself into your mind," Rodd says.

Mack's Fish Camp is less than an hour's drive from Fort Lauderdale or Miami but feels far removed in time and space -- like the Twilight Zone episode in which Billy Mumy replaced the cornfields around his farmhouse with an endless void, making it the center of a small, self-contained universe. Mack's remains among the wildest enclaves in all of Broward County, a portal back to a time when most of the land down here looked as wild as this. It has proudly belonged to the same family for six generations, and a new crop of young Joneses stands in line to inherit its riches and preserve its singular status. It has been battered by natural and man-made disasters but still looks much as it did 70 years ago. Although it has survived fires, floods, and hurricanes, it still reels from the loss of Nell Jones, the camp's patron saint.

Nell Jones turned Mack's from a backwoods boat launch into a South Florida legend by virtue of her inspirational strength and wisdom. Since she wasn't able to have kids, she and her husband, Mack Jones Jr., adopted two girls. Their oldest daughter got married and had twin boys in 1979. Three years later, at only 24 years old, Danelle Jones committed suicide. Her husband tried to manage the twins on his own, but he left the boys with Nell and skipped town. Nell raised the boys as her own, teaching them to be God-fearing young men who now prowl every square inch of the surrounding land.

Today, Keith and Marshall Jones are responsible for both the physical upkeep of Mack's Fish Camp as well as the imposing legacy they've inherited. Just as Everglades pioneers Ted Smallwood and Totch Brown eked out a living where few dared, the Jones twins live on the edge of Florida's final frontier. Together, they've got to maintain this fragile family heirloom even as the ceaseless tide of humanity -- carrying along development and environmental perils -- bears down upon it.

Fishermen still account for part of the business at Mack's Fish Camp, but most visitors, especially on weekends, arrive on ATVs. Then there are the just plain curious and the folks whose families are tied to Mack's in one way or another. Rodd is here because his sister (Marshall's pretty, ponytailed wife, Nicole) and their parents have moved here from Davie.

Another part of the business lies two and a half miles away, just across Krome Avenue, where the twins operate the 46-unit Jones Trailer Park, also passed down to them from their grandparents. "Beautiful, comfortable, affordable, real living," promises the business card, followed by "Family owned and operated for six generations." Now largely occupied by South and Central American migrant laborers, the trailers surround a lake fed by a natural spring.

When the twins were kids, bringing the ramshackle trailers up to code was among the huge expenses that loomed menacingly over their future. More recently, wildfires in that corner of the county have threatened the camp's occupants: In May 1999, the camp was briefly evacuated as a 10,000-acre fire blazed nearby. This winter, the flames crept close enough to leave a thick layer of soot on everything.

But the fires are popcorn-worthy entertainment compared to other disasters the camp has suffered. Diversion techniques employed by South Florida Water Mismanagement (as the camp-dwellers call them) have flooded the camp. "Whenever bad rains come and they don't want the city to get it, they'll dump it on us," Marshall complains of the nature-tinkerers.

"Once they dredged the canals, fishing's never been the same," he continues. "But it's still pretty good." The canals were dredged in the 1940s and '50s, he continues, giving the land decades to adjust to the change. "But now, if they go and change it again, it's going to take migrating species about 20 years to find habitats."

Additionally, he reports, when fertilizer runoff from Big Sugar's refineries upriver dump nitrogen and phosphorus into the canal, it's led to massive fish kills in the surrounding Everglades. "We've lost over a million fish in ten years, and that's on the light side."

On this lazy weekday afternoon, peacocks scream and birds chirp in the banyan trees above the canal as Marshall angrily points out an entire flatbed load of garbage that was dumped off just before dawn recently. Jerry says he woke up in time to see a truck from A+B Roll-off pulling away. The compacted trash sits there in a loaf-like lump. An old, broken television console has cleaved off the mass like an iceberg and crashed to the road. Although the twins called in a complaint, the trash remained there weeks later.

"That's a third-degree felony, right there," Jerry drawls.

Keith pulls up on his green John Deere four-wheeler. "How about calling the Channel 10 Problem Solvers?" he offers his brother. "They're even better than Help Me Howard."

Marshall and Rodd roam up and down the canal in an aluminum boat, collecting garbage that's blown into the water. As the boat ambles up, Rodd jumps out and grabs Colonel Sanders, a red rooster that's one of several camp pets along with a handful of chickens and peacocks, a ten-foot albino Burmese python, dozens of cats, and even a snapping turtle Rodd keeps in a kiddie pool. His broad smile spreading the freckles on his face, he puts Colonel Sanders on his shoulder. With the bird's talons digging into Rodd's white T-shirt -- which reads "Jesus Is My Homeboy" -- he sings, "Colonel Sanders, here he comes, doo-dah doo-dah!"

The cell phone on Marshall's belt rings with a frog's rib-bitt. It's Nicole, trying to find a highway exit in the morass of Miami. Calmly, he gives her directions. "Kiss the baby for me," he says.

Now that police and water management have closed off most of the ATV trails in the eastern Everglades in the past several years (to stop riders from wiping out on the levees and then suing Water Management), Mack's feels an additional pinch. Fewer bikers come in to buy beer, water, sunscreen, and bug repellent. Says Marshall: "We just want to run a family business out here. We're not looking to make a mint. We don't have a fleet of airboats."

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."

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."

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.

"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'."

The headline of Nell's Sun-Sentinel obituary read: "Nell Jones, Owner of Mack's Fish Camp; She Enjoyed Conversation."

"That's where she used to sit, right there," says Marshall, pointing to a kitchen chair next to a window in the store. The store used to be covered with old photographs documenting the camp's colorful memories, but they're currently in storage. Ancient, rusted, cross-cut saws belonging to Mack Sr. hang above the door, along with a gator head and '70s kitsch. Several hundred reels of eight-millimeter film are also in storage, waiting for a time when the Jones brothers can begin exploring and exploiting the historical significance of their home. "A lot of historic times were spent there, that's for sure," Shirley says.

"This place has the extra nostalgia," Marshall adds. "When you're in here, you can feel it."

And it still has the old-fashioned hospitality. Complete strangers are handed cold cans of soda and offered bottles of beer. Granny would've liked that, though she didn't drink herself.

"We had to deal with the death of our grandmother -- which was like our whole family all enveloped in one person," Marshall explains. "We had to pick up all these pieces of our lives and try to put it back together."

Probate court sorted out the tangled legal hassles that stood between the twins' inheriting the property. Through the "wheel system," the court appointed a Miami attorney, David Glassberg, who couldn't understand why the young men wanted to fight for a busted collection of trailers.

"Why is it so important to you guys to keep this place? Why don't you just sell it?" Keith remembers Glassberg asking.

"From the very beginning, they made it clear it wasn't up for discussion," Glassberg says today. "This was where they were born, and they weren't moving, period."

"My family worked hard for what little bit we got. I'm not gonna walk off," Keith confirms. "We were basically given the opportunity of a lifetime."

The twins now raise their own children at Mack's Fish Camp. Love Lea Jones, on her mom's lap, wears a bonnet to avoid burning her tiny, almost hairless head. She grabs a handful of her sundress and thrusts it into her mouth, gums clamping down on it wetly. Brianna Jones runs barefoot in a white lacy princess dress and flings open the door to the store. Keith greets her with "What's up, Pretty?" She smiles, revealing two tiny clenched rows of teeth, executes a daintily cute pirouette, and giggles. "Daddy," she asks, "Can I have a Slim Jim?"

"All I want to do is make this place better," says Keith, grabbing a meat stick for Brianna. "Not for myself -- I want to hand it down and give it away, just like my grandmother did."

"This is a paradise for children," Marshall adds. "Me and my brother had a fairytale childhood out here. Who wouldn't want to live here?"

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton