Story By Mike Johnson
Photography By Time 2 Remember
Dale Varnam’s 28-acre Fort Apache in Supply is a wild spectacle that proves one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.
Drive down any back road in Brunswick County and you will see something interesting. Perhaps it’s a solitary horse standing in an open field or two boys bouncing along on a four-wheeler. Perhaps it’s a shabby barn in such disrepair that if you pulled over and watched it long enough it may just crumble into the dirt.
But if you find yourself on Stone Chimney Road heading towards Holden Beach, you will see an open toilet with human legs sticking out of it. No, you didn’t just miss an epic Swirly. The oddity you spotted is part of a vast collection of random junk and artwork that comprises the funky, 28-acre spread known as Fort Apache.
Trust me, the legs in the toilet won’t hold your attention for long. Considering there is something weird and eye-popping anywhere you look, a visitor must be ready to slow down and pay attention if he wants to process even a fraction of what’s on display.
Before you enter the front gates, there are several old police cars and other vehicles with stuffed dummies riding shotgun in the front seats. There’s also a giant bus called the Crack Head Express warning passersby of the dangers of drugs and to “stay off the rock.” Upon entry, the true scale of the place comes into focus as you stroll down a dirt promenade that snakes through storefronts and trippy dioramas that bring to mind a psychedelic Disney World.
Much of the spectacle is made up of materials used in regional film and theater productions. The giant white hands and feet scattered around came from a production of Seussical the Musical. Many of the boards and other materials used for the fronts and roofs of the buildings lining Fort Apache’s “Main Street” are pieces of wood salvaged from deconstructed film sets. Look closely and you can see “Annie National Tour” on the backs of the supporting architecture. There are also pieces from the productions Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Sweeney Todd, Emerald City and countless other movies.
Taking one long panoramic look at the place, it’s like someone has transformed a dump into an attractive and thoughtful showroom with one magical sweep of the hand.
The man behind that magic is 62-year-old Dale Varnam. A Brunswick County native, Varnam has turned a family junkyard that deals primarily in scrap metal into a roadside attraction that is a visual smorgasbord.
Varnam has a perpetual smile nested in his long, graying beard. His voice is high and sweet, and his eyes exude equal parts warmth and mischief; he must instantly disarm anyone he meets. I have no scrap metal negotiating experience, but it’s probably difficult to play hardball with such a gentle presence.
When asked where all of this stuff comes from, Varnam hints at a wide network of contributors and collaborators.
“Everything I get — the buildings, the rooms, all of the items — comes from other people,” Varnam says. “I have a lot of friends in the industry who contribute both the theatrical and studio stuff. They inspire me a lot, and they give me stuff that’s been discarded. One man’s junk really does become another man’s treasure.”
Some of Dale’s treasure made a blip on the radar of the producers of “American Pickers,” the hit television show on History. In the winter of 2011, the crew shot part of an episode at Fort Apache, and apparently the Pickers were keen on a few of Varnam’s prized vehicles, particularly some that were featured in The Godfather movies. As it turns out, they made Varnam an offer he could refuse, so those cars remain in lockdown at Dale’s place.
While Dale and his resourceful team at Fort Apache receive and recycle materials from the film industry, they also contribute to current and future productions. Take one trip to the site and it’s clear: The place is an obvious choice as a film location. Don’t Know Yet, an independent feature that filmed in various spots around North Carolina, used Fort Apache as a location for their film and featured Varnam in a speaking role.
Terry Linehan, writer and director of Don’t Know Yet and Film Studies professor at UNC-Wilmington, experienced the charm of the place himself.
“Everything about Dale’s fantasy junkyard makes it an ideal place to shoot,” says Linehan. “It’s an actual working metal recycling facility, so there’s that aspect. Then there’s his treasure trove of stuff he’s collected from far and weird. Fort Apache is one of the most memorable and unusual roadside attractions you’ll ever see. He is a gem of Brunswick County.”
When asked about Varnam’s unique energy and how it affected the crew and overall shoot, Linehan portrayed Varnam as a kind host and something of a scene stealer.
“Dale is so sweet and eager to talk and never seems to be in a hurry. So I think his pace and ‘sit a spell’ demeanor made us slow down and enjoy the moment,” reflects Linehan. “Dale was concerned about his first-ever role as an actor, but he soon eased into the job as he became more comfortable with his fellow seasoned actors from LA and NC. By the end of the second day, we were simply rolling the camera and letting Dale be Dale.”
Since he is a character all on his own, directing Dale by not directing Dale is a wise strategy.
Dale reminds me of my uncles who once ran wild and welcomed trouble, but mellowed into quiet, domesticated family men. And Dale did find a bit of trouble. If a life is like a book, Dale’s middle chapters were full of lawlessness and adventure with one plotline ending in a prison term.
Listening to local lore and conducting casual online research reveals a different side to Dale Varnam, and it’s a fascinating story for sure. So Varnam has a history, but don’t we all? There are pockets in every man’s past that are dotted with questionable decisions that yield unsavory results. Part of the maturation process is figuring out ways to leave the baggage on the road, transforming those moments into necessary stepping stones on the path to a better life. People change and grow, and hopefully earn a chance at redemption. Fort Apache is where Dale has staged his comeback.
Varnam often refers to himself as two separate people, the Old Dale and the New Dale. I get this. There’s an Old Mike that would have enjoyed a guy like the Old Dale. I like to think of Dale
as another interesting artifact in the Fort Apache collection. Something fascinating that you can look into and ponder its origins and its history. You don’t need to know the whole story to find value in the piece; you take hold of it as it simultaneously takes hold of you.
As owner of a complicated past and a level of local celebrity, Varnam leverages both to give back to the community. Knowing what can happen without a positive peer group and a meaningful plan for the future, Dale takes an active role in nudging misguided teens in the right direction by acting as an informal mentor.
“For 20 years I danced with the Devil, then I had to pay the piper,” admits Varnam. “I want to keep these young people from going down the same paths in life that I took. I try to keep them from taking the wrong turns.”
Besides his outreach with wayward youth, Varnam finds other ways to support community causes. A large volume of donated clothes ends up at Fort Apache, and Dale and his team send items to Goodwill or provide clothes directly to needy people in the community. Varnam also sent food and clothes up to New Jersey for Hurricane Sandy relief last year.
If you want to experience Dale Varnam and Fort Apache through the lens of gifted filmmakers, look out for Terry Linehan’s Don’t Know Yet and a second short film, Another Man’s Treasure. Both films screened at last year’s Cucalorus Film Festival and pop up around the area on occasion. Another Man’s Treasure was conceived, shot and edited by Maryosha Eggleston, a talented young filmmaker who has used Fort Apache in her work for a number of years. Eggleston is no stranger to the mystique of Varnam and his junkyard.
“I met Dale in 2009, after a classmate in a still photography class told me about his junkyard,” says Eggleston. “I grew up in Holden Beach and I’d always passed it and knew it was a crazy place, so I went with her to take photos. After walking around and meeting Dale, I realized very quickly that it would be a great place to shoot a documentary film. Over a couple of projects, Dale has always been the kindest person. He will genuinely give you the shirt off his back without even second-guessing it. He’s become a big part of my life and I care so much about him and his family. It’s been an amazing and beautiful connection.”
While both films are highly recommended, the best way to experience Fort Apache is to see it for yourself. Once Labor Day passes, Fort Apache remains open, but only on the weekends. Though it opens occasionally on Sundays for tours and parties, Saturdays are the best days to visit during the winter months.
Stop by next time you’re traveling through that part of the county and explore Varnam’s curious creation. Whether it’s movie memorabilia, a classic car or Dale Varnam himself, you’re guaranteed to find something one of a kind.
Fort Apache is located at 2383 Stone Chimney Road in Supply.