Out of the darkness, into the light: Fort Apache and the art of second chances (and the final resting place of Herbie the Love Bug)

"It's just unbelievable what people throw away. I'm happy to save it, make something out of it."

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SUPPLY – Fort Apache, like its owner and operator, is all about second chances.

On a stretch of Brunswick county back road, a 28-acre compound is mostly hidden behind high wooden walls. In the front yard are an exceptional number of toilets, vintage cars and two buses, covered in anti-drug paraphernalia. Through a chain-link fence, even stranger sights await.

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Varnam said he had never really tried drugs, but saw the damage they did – thus the ubiquitous anti-drug paraphernalia around Fort Apache. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)
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Toilets, of which there are an overabundance on the property, are something on an inside joke with Varnam. “I like people to wonder a little. But the truth is, it’s on account of all the crap we got here in Brunswick county.” (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To understand the bewildering aesthetic of Fort Apache, it helps to know the man behind it, Dale Varnam. Fort Apache has always been a scrap yard, but its transformation into something special has a lot to do with Varnam’s own metamorphosis. As Varnam tells it, it is the story of Old Dale and New Dale; it’s a tale he relates in the familiar style of someone who assumes one already knows a bit of the story, or can at least relate.

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Dale Varnam. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

“That was Old Dale,” Varnam said. “I danced with the devil, for a long time. And then I started playing both sides, you know what I mean? And then, one day, the man came to me and said, ‘Mr. Dale, the train’s leaving, get on or get off.’”

Varnam’s “dance with the devil,” refers to the late 1970s and 1980s, when Varnam’s family of commercial fishermen got involved in the drug smuggling business, first moving marijuana from Florida to Brunswick County, and then graduating to cocaine.

“I’ve looked into our family history,” Varnam said. “We actually come from up north, we’re from Scandinavia. So, we’ve always been fisherman. But maybe with a little too much pirate in there.”

Eventually, federal agents came to Varnam and offered him a ride on the “train,” working undercover and then turning state’s evidence in order to escape dozens of drug trafficking charges. After helping to send over a hundred suspects to court with his testimony, Varnam said he laid low.

“I had a target on my back,” said Varnam, who kept to himself behind the walls of Fort Apache until a parole violation send him to state prison in Raleigh for an eight-year sentence.

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Varnam keeps framed copies of newspaper clippings, documenting his “dance with the devil.” (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)
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In Varnam’s house, a wall of clippings, documenting the tribulations of Old Dale. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

“That was my address, for eight some years – 1300 Western Blvd in downtown Raleigh,” Varnam said, adding with a laugh, “I’d never lived downtown in a city before.”

Varnam spent the time reading, thinking and praying.

“I’d usually just go to church already thinking about getting out of church, kneeling with my eyes on my watch,” he said. “But then, all of the sudden, I was in prison. I had time.”

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In prison, Varnam developed his unique talent for recycling other people’s trash into his own treasure, making model houses out of discarded cigar tips.

“I didn’t smoke cigars, and I’d had enough trouble with smuggling, so I didn’t want to be associated with the people bringing them in. But it seemed like a waste to throw those nice wooden tips away – and I did have plenty of time,” he said.

Varnam’s somewhat preternatural ability to sweet talk people also came in handy.

“I ended up getting a guard to smuggle them out of prison for me so I could get them home. I just kind of talked him into it,” he said. “I won’t use his name because I don’t want to get anybody in trouble. But I am probably the only man to ever smuggle smokes out of prison.”

After being transferred to a federal facility and serving two years of a federal sentence, Varnam was given some bad news.

“ ‘Mr. Dale,’ they said, ‘I’m sorry but I can’t let you go home.’ I asked them, ‘why not?’ And this was after Desert Storm and all that, and they said they’d learned all about PTSD. They said, ‘Mr. Dale, you’ve probably got PTSD from being in here with all these murderers and psychopaths.’ ”

With a laugh, Varnam recalls, “They set me up in a halfway house at Fifth and Princess for six months. Man, I felt safer back in prison.”

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In a darkened corner of one of Varnam’s warehouses, the Bailey Building & Loan sign from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

It was in Wilmington that Varnam started making contacts with film and theater producers. Varnam collected film props both new and old, bringing them back to the family scrap yard at Fort Apache to store and eventually display. As his reputation grew in production circles, people started bringing used props to Varnam themselves.

“Now it comes it in so fast,” Varnam said, “it’s just unbelievable what people throw away. I’m happy to save it, make something out of it. My family helps me out, because a lot of it’s been left out in the rain, or damaged by storms, or its all rusted up. A lot of it is beat to crap. But it just takes some time and some love. I’ve got cars that haven’t been cranked in decades, but I’ll get them running. It’s not always easy. And there’s an art to it, you know what I mean? But you can’t give up on stuff.”

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Zoltar, from “Big.” Varnam is repairing the prop, damaged by Hurricane Matthew. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)
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Herbie, the Love Bug. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

But Varnam does more than collect. Set designers from productions of all sizes visit Fort Apache looking for the perfect props.

“I don’t like to name names,” Varnam said, “but sometimes his enthusiasm overcame his discretion. Touring the property, Varnam pointed out props he has lent to “Ironman 3,” “Ray,” and numerous Thalian Hall productions. Varnam also said North Carolina native Nicholas Sparks was quietly a fan of Fort Apache’s collection of classic cars, which were most recently used in “The Longest Ride.”

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One of Varnam’s many classic cars, this one used in a recent Nicholas Sparks film. Varnam has dozens of cars on the 28-acre property. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)
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Buried in a warehouse by props rescued from Hurricane Matthew, this is one of five cars from “The Godfather” films on the Fort Apache grounds. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Varnam is able to support Fort Apache from his dealings with large productions but, when it comes to smaller films and plays, he often helps them out pro bono. Varnam’s antiquated flip-phone jingles nearly constantly with requests.

“I know it’s not one of those fancy new smart phones, but my lawyer told me not to be styling and profiling, you know what I mean? Stay humble,” he said. “And, anyway, it gets the job done.”

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Varnam showed Port City Daily through a quarter-mile of improvised warehouse space he called “the tunnel.” The space is full of items Varnam rescued from the floodwaters of Hurricane Matthew. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Varnam receives frequent requests for specific props, but Fort Apache also serves as a clearing house for donated clothing from all over Brunswick County. In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, which badly damaged Fort Apache as well as much of inland southeastern North Carolina, Fort Apache routed clothing and other household goods around the county. That, Varnam says, is the what the New Dale is all about.

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Varnam also collects animals, including chickens, a pair of Blue Swedish ducks and numerous cats, including one blind kitten. “She was born that way, poor thing. I got the eye drops and everything but it didn’t help. Can’t take her to the vet because they’ll just try to put her down, but she gets around fine.” (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

“I just like to help people,” Varnam said. “Old Dale was selfish. The money, it was worse than any addiction, and I couldn’t think about anyone else. Now, I think about my daughters, I think about my family. I want to help as many people as I can. To give back.”

Fort Apache, is located at 2357-2399 Stone Chimney Road in Supply, Brunswick County. It is currently closed for seasonal renovations and repairs after Hurricane Matthew. It will reopen on Memorial Day.

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Vandem’s sense of humor is everywhere: a little morbid and occasionally scatological but always good-natured. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)