Pastor Ricky Hawkins stood at the pulpit before the congregation at Key Largo’s First Baptist Church. He clenched his fist and shook it.
“Mr. Mitchell understood his reason to be here on Earth,” he shouted.
The crowd, packed shoulder to shoulder in the pews, yelled their agreement.
“Amen!” one attendee said. “Hallelujah,” said another.
“This man spent his time well in this land,” Hawkins said, his voice lapsing into song. “If God decided to take him, he made a real good choice.”
A drummer on the stage behind the pastor gently tapped a cymbal. The crowd erupted, clapping and shouting “Amen” once more.
This gathering, held on Nov. 11, was a celebration for Enoch “Enos” Mitchell, who passed away in Key Largo on Oct. 31 of natural causes at age 93. As Hawkins eulogized, Mitchell had dedicated his life to his family, friends, church and community, literally building the foundation of Key Largo from the ground up.
Known as “Powder Man,” he had used dynamite to help carve out Adams Cut from the earth, as well as many other canals and boat basins. Along the way, he realized that his talent was useful for installing septic tanks, and so he built a business, Enos Mitchell Septic Tank Corp., which prospered for decades.
“He was a good man, a good man,” one man told Keys Weekly after the service. He shook his head as he watched the funeral hearse and limousines slowly leave the church parking lot in a procession. “I worked for him for 30 years. He was 57 years in business, and everyone knew him.”
While many of us are happy to do a good day’s work, dust off our hands and call it a day, Mitchell devoted his free time to helping others.
“He did the heavy lifting,” said Joe Miklas, a longtime Upper Keys Rotary member. He pointed out that Mitchell and his son, Willie, together contributed 41 years of service to the organization.
The family participated in the Rotary’s annual seafood festival in the 1980s, and Mitchell would lug in fryers to make conch fritters.
“And he was a good cook in addition to everything else,” Miklas said with a chuckle.
“Everything else” included becoming a deacon for Key Largo Covenant Community Church and a board member of both First State Bank and the nonprofit Center for Independent Living of the Keys.
Mitchell and his wife, Ora Lee, were married for 67 years and raised five children in the Keys. (One of his sons, Enos Jr., predeceased him.) The couple moved to Key Largo in 1956, according to a short biography the family wrote about their patriarch.
“It was horrible living in the Keys back then,” he said in the document. “Mosquitoes killed a lot of people down here. You know where the Burger King is? There used to be a little bar there. They used to get drunk there and stagger outside, fall down, pass out, and the mosquitoes used to get them.”
But Mitchell probably wasn’t bothered by a mosquito or two.
As family friend Joyce Riley said at the service, he “was no stranger to hard work, picking cotton at a very early age, farming, horse breaker, bricklayer, backhoe driver, concrete mason…”
Mitchell, one of 11 children, was born in Arkansas to Mollie and Willie Mitchell. He dropped out of school after first grade to help the family.
“I used to pick cotton,” he said. “I got all smashed up doing that, my knees and my back; I was a young kid, 12 years old, hauling 150 pounds on his back.”
As a young man, Mitchell sought year-round work and gave Detroit a try. He didn’t like big city life, so he found his way to Homestead, living there for seven years and learning to operate heavy equipment and clear land. This led to the dynamite jobs in Key Largo — he earned $1.50 an hour.
But if Mitchell bore resentment toward his trials, he didn’t let it show. As a successful businessman later in life, he was able to buy plots of land in his Hibiscus Park neighborhood. He gave one of those lots to Monroe County to build Friendship Park and helped create the 305 OneWay Hibiscus Park Community, through which he provided Easter egg hunts and gave out Thanksgiving baskets.
And yet, Mitchell was a down-to-earth man who enjoyed simple pleasures. His son-in-law, Willie Wamble, said he liked nothing more than to hang out and talk politics.
“I would see him sitting on the patio, leaning back and smiling, and saying, ‘Hey, my man,’” Wamble said.
He paused for a long moment. He revealed that he intends to get Mitchell’s street in Hibiscus Park named after him.
“You wonder, who’s going to take his place?” Wamble said. “What person alive will do what he did? Will we continue to be a close-knit community? That’s what we’re concerned about.”