Granny's Roughnecks

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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."

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton