Sometimes we find some of the most interesting places along the NC Coast when we aren’t even trying!
Dale Varnam’s 28-acre Fort Apache in Supply NC is one of those places that you stumble upon in wide eyed wonder that brings to mind the old saying that “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure”. He likes to call it a” Contemporary Art Museum”.
Driving down the old Stone Chimney Road heading towards Holden Beach, you will come upon an open toilet with a couple of legs legs protruding from it.
Even before you enter the premises through the front gate you will encounter stuffed dummies sitting in police cars while an enormous bus called the Crack Head Express warns passing drivers of the perils of drugs and to “stay off the rock.” Several cowboy-like figures hang from nooses.
This odd spectacle is just one part of a huge collection of random junk and artwork that comprise this 28 acre spread named Fort Apache. Much of the material comes from regional film and theater work.
Back in 1957, Varnam’s father, Olaf, started a junk yard and scrap metal repository just up the Lockwood’s Folly river from their family homestead of Varnamtown. Over the ensuing years it has metamorphosized into a stockpile of American memorabilia and oddities that are stuffed, hung, parked and placed in every available space.
Varnam can’t remember exactly why he named it Fort Apache, and it has drawn stares from people driving down Stone Chimney Road through Brunswick County for years.
“I guess I’d just call it art,” says 66-year-old Dale Varnam the owner of this odd roadside attraction.
Varnam collects the props from movie and theatrical sets, and puts them out for people to look at.
But Varnam said he also wants to make people think.
“Sometimes,” he said, “it’s hard to tell the dummies from the real people.”
Varnam’s past is also well-known in the area as he was caught up in a federal drug raid that made headlines in the 80’s known as “Operation White Tide” .
That part of his life started when Dale graduated Shallotte High School in 1971 and fell in love with money. He the found the best way to gain loads of it was trafficking in drugs.
He didn’t cared whether the cocaine he was unloading was pure or not as long as the money was.
“It was pure greed that I was addicted to,” said Varnam, now 65. “It was in 1972. I started dancing with the devil. I became addicted to money. I didn’t care about the drugs, or drinking. I just brought the drugs in for distribution. I never sold it retail to dealers on the street.”
In 1988, Varnam avoided prison time on three dozen cocaine trafficking charges after helping investigators indict 70 others in the wide-reaching sting.
Four years later, though, he was sentenced to 35 years after pleading guilty to several breaking and entering charges.
Varnam left prison in 2001, and became “saved and baptized,” and soon was dedicating himself to creating his unique version of a “theme park”.
Varnam and his cornucopia of the bizarre has been the location for a movie “Don’t Know Yet”, the subject of a documentary “Another Man’s Treasure”, and an episode after of the television series when back in 2011 The History Channel’s “American Pickers” spent a day indulging their curiosity.
“They called two days before they came to tell me they were coming,” Dale said.
The cast and crew of “American Pickers” arrived in Brunswick County and spent more than 10 hours digging on Dale’s property.
“So many people had told them they had seen my stuff and told them they needed to check it out,” Dale said.
In the summertime his business attracts a lot of attention from out of town and out-of-state guests who drop in to see what his displays are all about and to hunt treasures.
“They did their history on me,” Dale said. “They knew I like to help people out. I try to help so many people to keep them from going down a bad road. I’ve been down that road. There is the old Dale and the new Dale. If you dance with the devil some day you have to pay the piper.”
Dale said he did sell them some items but the thing they wanted most he wasn’t ready to part with.
“They loved my old cars,” he said. “They really wanted the cars from ‘The Godfather.’ I have all the papers and they knew what they were. But I held on to my cars. I did promise to contact them if I sold them.”
They bought a few signs, flight jackets and little cars. Dale said he was pretty sure they bought things that won’t air simply because there is so much to look at.
Dale said the guys were really down to earth and he enjoyed spending the day with them. “I was proud to have them,” Dale said. “And proud they were here with the new Dale instead of the old one.”