Fort Apache: The Anti-Drug Bemusement Park of Brunswick County

BY LIZ PARDUE-SCHULTZ Dale Varnam If the rural equivalent of "people watching" is taking back roads to check out what oddit...


Dale Varnam
If the rural equivalent of "people watching" is taking back roads to check out what oddities exist on other people's land, then roadsters who attempt a southbound shortcut from Highway 17 to Holden Beach have hit some sort of people-watching goldmine. Around an otherwise nondescript curve on Stone Chimney Mountain Road, drivers are ambushed with a cacophony of playfully horrific scenes – there's a bus adorned with a gigantic rooftop crack rock, skeleton, and rolled-up bills and the title Crackhead Express driving a dozen well-dressed zombies to their doom, three boats, two vintage police cars, a Winnebago with Walter White peering out from his piles of money and glass chemistry set, and a garden of impeccably hand-lettered toilets, inviting guests to "Come and Sit a Spell."

"Y'know, it's just crazy." is the refrain Dale Varnam repeats at least five dozen times in the course of our conversation during a meandering walking tour of his creation. And, indeed it is. Originally his family's scrapyard, Varnam began transforming the 28-acre property into a surreal, tongue-in-cheek anti-drug bemusement park after his prison release for drug-trafficking in the late 1980s.

"I danced with the Devil for 20 years," he says, before insisting, "I never did the drugs I moved, but greed of money is an addiction too, you know." It's a story he's eager to share, as visitors wander through the faux village, crafted with discarded set pieces Dale has collected from his showbiz connections in nearby Wilmington. In fact, framed newspaper clippings detailing his drug bust and subsequent trials wallpaper the Fort Apache thrift store, greeting visitors with a sign that requests: "Don't hate me because of my junk, my past, or my good looks... Respect me because I'm ok with it, I've dealt with it, and humble because of it."

Frankly, it's impossible not to like Dale Varnam. He welcomes every shell-shocked guest with an easy smile and kind eyes, inviting all to take their time wandering throughout his property before proclaiming, "...And remember! We're not crazy and we're NOT hoarders!" with a wry twinkle in his eye. His humor can be seen all over the park, from the DEA officers parachuting into the wild west motif, to the irreverent signs at every turn.

The park itself doesn't offer any rides or interactive activities, but is more a curation of unwanted things fashioned into an impressively thorough wild-west-style village, complete with homes, a general store, a "Lick-Her" store, a funeral parlour, a saloon, and a church holding a trippy Christmas pageant-slash-funeral that visitors can wander through. While I'm standing at the nativity scene, Dale points excitedly toward the room's darker corner, "That coffin was the one where Eddie slept in ‘The Munsters'!"

Actually, there isn't much in the tons of junk that Dale can't place the origins of. As we wander through the park, he points out cars that were in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and The Godfather, storefront flats that were from touring companies of Broadway classics, and small, obscure artifacts that were remnants of local landmarks of yore. At one glance, the myriad antiques appear to be just piles of unfiltered trash, but within moments of walking with Varnam, I realize that all these items have been carefully chosen and placed by this unconventional artist.

"I have more inside that's not ready to be shown yet," he says, gesturing at the two-story house that is entirely obscured by vines and stage flats. I promise not to take any photos of his storerooms and he leads me through a seemingly-endless labyrinth of cluttered rooms, piled high with treasures he hasn't yet found a showcase for. The house's path eventually wends its way through the thrift shop, which curls around the house, through a homemade tunnel and into an old barn that is now being used as a storeroom for at least a dozen cars from the 1930s.

Along the way, everything is for sale; although Dale says that most of what he makes goes back to charities, and any clothes people donate to his cause are recycled back into the community or sent to areas where disaster has most recently struck. It is unclear exactly how Varnam is able to maintain this sprawling amount of land financially, but he shrugs when asked about his profits, "I've been blessed, and the New Dale wants to bless others."

There is no common thread within this pile of unwanted things; items range in function from giant neon signs for nightclubs to porcelain dolls to 1980s convenient store phone booths to antique washboards to novelty knick-knacks from every decade imaginable. Truly the only common thread among these piles of discarded items is the attention and admiration of their keeper.

We sit to chat and Dale answers my gently-probing questions with the same long, meandering paths he has woven throughout his small kingdom; often, he will have spoken for twenty minutes before I realize he never came even close to answering my original query. Still though, he entertains me for four hours, sitting and talking about the media attention his creation has garnered (the show American Pickers had recently come back to shoot more episodes there) and the stories behind each of the items in this surreal art exhibit.

Before I leave, he hands me a magazine within which he was recently featured. He inscribes it: "To: My Sister, From: Her Brother Dale."

He hugs me warmly and makes me promise to return. I do in earnest.
Liz Pardue-Schultz is a "Jill of all trades" who is madly in love with North Carolina, where she writes about her adventures and soaks up sunshine and Cheerwine. Her words have been published in HuffPost, XOJane,, and a ridiculous number of Letters to the Editor columns.


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Strange Carolinas is the Travelogue Of The Offbeat, a wry look at the interesting, unique, and offbeat roadside attractions, people, music, art, food, and festivals in North and South Carolina.


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