Story by Jeff Klinkenberg
Photos by Scott Keeler

Scott Keeler on the Shell Factory
Jeff Klinkenberg on Roan "Doc" Johnson
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An hour south in Fort Myers, the Shell Factory is a different world. Nearly seven decades old, the tourist attraction is a relic of tacky, pre-Disney Florida. Inside the 17-acre building, good taste has taken a holiday. The previous sentence, by the way, is meant as a compliment.

Once upon a time, there were hundreds of impossibly colorful attractions along Florida roads. Some specialized in shells, but most featured famous Florida megafauna, namely snakes and alligators. Gator pits were as common as parking lots; even gas stations sold live baby alligators.

Now they're gone, victims of political correctness, changing tastes and Interstate 75, which funnels millions of motorists away from the Tamiami Trail. Even so, tourists on the Trail still manage to find Koreshan State Historic Site, Everglades Wonder Gardens and the Shell Factory. A half-million tourists march through the Shell Factory's door annually, drawn like zombies to bins of odoriferous sponges, clam ashtrays and a glowing bank of lights built from scallop shells.

"I'm a barnacle attached to Shell Factory," says Karen Neidigh, who has spent nearly a quarter-century working there. "Sometimes I feel like I'm part of a dying breed, but you know, lots of people enjoy old-fashioned Florida."

She steps aside as a thundering herd of German tourists charges a counter almost sagging from the weight of resplendent coconut-head dolls.

The urban parts of the Tamiami Trail, especially in Naples, could be the urban sections of gazillions of roads. In practically any given mile you can swig a wake-me-up cup at Starbucks, wolf french toast at the International House of Pancakes, buy a hammer at Home Depot, pick up a Barbie at Toys "R" Us, eat a burger at Wendy's, stop at Wal-Mart for paper towels, run into an Eckerd for aspirin, have a nice steak at Outback, then hit the cineplex and watch Jungle Book 2. The Tamiami Trail is as American as a Frisch's Big Boy apple pie.

Roan "Doc" Johnson remembers when there were more mosquitoes and bears than french fries on the Tamiami Trail. He was there when they laid the last inch of tar through the Everglades.

"Everything they tell you about building the Tamiami Trail is true," he says in a weak voice. "It was brutal work, harder than anything I ever done. They always had three crews. One was doin' the work, the one that had had enough was on the way out, and the third crew that didn't know what was ahead of them was comin' in. We had convicts and Indians, black people and white. Everybody was poor back then, and everybody wanted work."

He is 95 and speaks in a magnolia blossom accent grown in Georgia. He and Marie, married 64 years, live in a small bungalow a few blocks off the Trail. Orange and mango trees line the fence; a little cypress swamp, a reminder of the bigger one that Doc endured on the Trail, guards the driveway.

"I was 18 when I come down to Florida," he says. The year was 1926, and the Trail was two years from completion. As the Miami crew inched west, Doc's Naples crew crept east. They're all dead now, the members of those crews, grizzled young men, drunkards some of them, Bible toters, family men, gamblers, lovers of the ladies. Doc reels off their names - Meece Ellis! Earl Ivey! - and to him they're alive. Doc has to do the talking for them now.

Doc was a surveyor. He and others waded ahead, hacked their way through the wet thickets and laid out a route, often accompanied by a crack shot who discouraged rambunctious alligators and snakes with hot lead.

Behind Doc's team waded a larger crew, arranging cypress pole rail tracks in the mud; later, using the tracks, came the ox-pulled carts loaded with men, drills and dynamite. Underneath the mud was solid rock. Drill hole, place dynamite, light fuse, run for safety; such was the routine. Before it was over, the Trail required 2,598,000 sticks of dynamite.

"Men, money and machinery," was the slogan of the dreamers who wanted the Trail built.

"Muck, misery and moccasins," was the credo of the men who did the work.

"The mosquitoes ate you alive," Doc says and automatically scratches the back of his hand. "But the horseflies was worse. They'd take a hunk o' flesh out of you. We slept out in the open, mostly, under netting. That was fine unless it rained. When it rained, you'd hunker under the ox cart to stay dry. Only you never got dry."

The ox cart was pulled by Old Blue. When the ox was supposed to move, he stopped. When he was supposed to go straight, he turned. But he could haul heavy equipment when he had a mind to.

Next came the big dredges to scoop up the loose rock into what became the roadbed. Today, the last of the machinery, the Bay City Walking Dredge, fights rust just inside the entrance of Collier-Seminole State Park on the Tamiami Trail.

"I made $78 a month," Doc says. "Good money then. Sometimes we'd get Saturday night off. We'd get taken back to Everglades City. There was liquor even though Prohibition was going on, and cards and pool."

Sometimes, after the whiskey took hold, men settled grudges with knives and axes.

"They was rough old boys," Doc says. "They was hard on newcomers. On your first day, at breakfast, they'd give you pancakes. They'd watch the new man, but the new man didn't know why until he poured his syrup. That's because they'd put a big old cockroach in the syrup pitcher. If you didn't react too bad, you was considered tough enough to work on the Tamiami Trail. One time I saw this old boy just push the cockroach off his pancake with his fork and keep on eating. He was tough enough, I guess."

By April 25, 1928, the road was paved and ready for traffic. The celebration began in Everglades City with speeches and music and a parade. Stern-faced Miccosukee Indians stood in the crowd; a cavalcade of Model T's lined up, a ribbon was cut. Motorists finally could use the Tamiami Trail. Two hours later a driver fell asleep at the wheel and hit a cypress tree.
Chapter 4