Remarkable ‘Mama Hokie’ fought back a gator in the Glades
With the news earlier this month about the Moore Haven teen who lost part of his arm to a 10-foot alligator while swimming with friends, I thought it would be the opportune time to share another alligator tale from nearby Ochopee.
For several years after arriving in Naples in 1981, every time I drove to Miami I sped by a most colorful sign posted along the Tamiami Trail, cattycorner from the tiny post office in Ochopee, touting “Beer Worms.”
“What on earth are those?” I always wondered with a smile.
The sign belonged to Clara and Sam McKay, and it stood in front of their home and business, a fishing worm farm. Sam also established a travel trailer camp there in the 1950s, providing affordable lodging to the growing numbers of campers called “tin canners” — so nicknamed due to their trailers’ uncanny resemblance to tin cans. The camp was built on a five-acre clearing of land known as the Ochopee Farms. It was in business prior to the formation of the Big Cypress National Preserve, and it housed several wooden dwellings known as chickees, traditional shelters supported with cypress poles, with a raised floor and open sides and then topped with an A-framed thatched roof made from cabbage palm fronds.
Mama Hokie, minus her right forearm, in front of her fishing worm farm, along the Tamiami Trail in Ochopee.
MARIA STONE / COURTESY OF THE COLLIER COUNTY HISTORICAL RESEARCH CENTER INC. Following Sam’s death in 1966, Clara continued to run the business, which now also offered various sundries as well as beer and worms (not “Beer Worms”). As traffic along the Trail increased, so did Clara’s reputation and warm hospitality, endearing her to many while also earning her the nickname of Mama Hokie. The landmark roadside sign continued to bring travelers to her door for more than 30 years.
At 81 years old, Mama Hokie nearly died after walking out onto her wooden bridge over the canal to dump a bucket of water, something she did on a regular basis. An alligator came out from under the bridge and grabbed her by the arm. She frantically fought him off while hanging onto the bridge for dear life. The nightmare struggle finally ended when she realized that the gator had twisted off half of her right arm.
Mama Hokie’s “Beer Worms” once stood along the Tamiami Trail in Ochopee.
MARIA STONE / COURTESY OF THE COLLIER COUNTY HISTORICAL RESEARCH CENTER INC. Miraculously, Mama Hokie managed to call 911 before passing out on the bridge. It would take 30 minutes before the medical helicopter arrived. She was unconscious, but paramedics managed to resuscitate her as they sped to the hospital.
Within an hour of the attack, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Commission officials had located the alligator and retrieved Mama Hokie’s lower arm and hand, which were, unfortunately, too mangled to reattach.
Following five months of therapy and recuperation, Mama Hokie returned home to her beloved Ochopee and continued her remarkable lifestyle with the help and support of her friends, neighbors and church. The freak accident required her to give up her worm farm business, however, because it was just too hard to work with one hand (even though she did finally master writing with her left).
Five years later, during Tropical Depression Jerry in 1996, she suffered another life-threatening experience. The canal outside her home overflowed, and she awakened in the middle of the night to discover 6 inches of swamp water inside. While wading across the room to escape, she stumbled and fell. Unable to right herself, she struggled to keep her head above the foul water throughout the rest of the night.
A a park ranger came looking for her the following day and found her, barely lucid and protesting the need to go to the hospital. After passing out, she was rushed to the hospital, where she was treated for the next three weeks; this was followed by two weeks of recuperation at a friend’s home before she was finally able to return home.
Sadly, Mama Hokie never fully recovered from this last incident. The combination of her lengthy exposure in the water coupled with the immense ingestion of swamp water, along with her age, caused pneumonia to set in, requiring her return to the hospital for three more weeks. This additional hospitalization took its toll on her, leaving her weak and unable to live alone ever again. After her release, she reluctantly moved into a nursing home for proper care. With her health declining quickly, Mama Hokie passed on Dec. 16, 1996 — of a broken heart and body, so the story goes. ¦
— Maureen Sullivan- Hartung arrived in Naples in 1981. Following a year’s stint as a reporter for the former weekly Everglades Echo newspaper, she began freelancing. Her first book, “The Hidden History of Everglades City & Points Nearby,” was published in 2010 by The History Press in South Carolina. Look for her Undercover Historian column every other week in Florida Weekly. Learn more about Ms. Sullivan- Hartung at www.maureenwrites.com.