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A visit to NC’s Fort Apache, the weird attraction that’s home to Crazy Dale Varnam

For decades, thousands of tourists have rounded a bend past Holden Beach and stopped dead at the sight of Fort Apache, an unmistakable pile of junked cars, pirate mannequins, monster dummies, hubcaps, shopping carts and roughly 100 toilet bowls — the home of Crazy Dale Varnam.

In his wildman youth, he struck a deal with drug cartels seeking an out-of-the-way dropoff spot for cocaine by the bale and marijuana by the planeload, a scheme that lured nearly all 300 residents of nearby Varnamtown to offer their fish houses and crab shacks to the likes of Pablo Escobar — the subject of a new podcast and book.

But at 72, after 10 years in prison, “Crazy Dale” has built an eccentric retirement compound on top of his family’s junkyard, compiling a surreal collection of movie props, antique ambulances, golf clubs, wine glasses and skulls that once drew the cast of “American Pickers” to film an episode there.

He entertains the curious tourist, handing out plastic cockroaches when he shakes hands, wearing a sun visor with gray teddy bear fur on top to hide his bald head.

He leads a path through his trash shrine, pointing out the cross he built out of stepladders, the Coke machine with “No Cocaine” painted on the front, the window with “Watch what goes up the nose” scrawled across it and the toilets overflowing with empty Skyy vodka bottles — his visual aide for redemption.

“You ain’t scared of cats, are you?” he asks, leading a tour as one skitters past. “I had 66. Now I got 74.”

A scrapyard grows larger and weirder

In his early-‘80s smuggling days, Varnam embraced a lifestyle defined by the Corvettes he drove and the Playboy bunnies from Miami he talked into mowing his lawn, which would have struck Varnamtown as odd if so many of its fisherman residents weren’t in on the crime.

But after Varnam turned federal informant and sent much of his hometown to prison, he went into seclusion, fearful of assassins, and his family scrapyard grew larger and weirder.

“If you had to choose anybody to be a drug kingpin,” said Lynn Betz, who wrote the Varnamtown book “My Right Hand to Goodness,” “he would probably be the last person you would choose.”

“Crazy Dale” Varnam photographed in his Fort Apache on Thursday, February 22, 2024 in Varnamtown, N.C.
“Crazy Dale” Varnam photographed in his Fort Apache on Thursday, February 22, 2024 in Varnamtown, N.C.

He leads visitors down a long tunnel made from U-shaped arches, winding through the dark for a quarter-mile, its walls lined with mannequins in coffins and a prominent “Scarface” poster. Along the way, he flicks a switch and a CD starts playing his theme song, recorded by a local blues guitarist:

“Crazy Dale,” goes the song, “he’s got a lot of problems

Crazy Dale, he’s got a lot of friends

It’s the story ‘bout the life and times of Crazy Dale Varnam

a drug dealing outlaw with a presidential pardon.”

Asked which president pardoned him, Varnam says he can’t remember, then points out a black sedan he says appeared in “The Godfather,” an antique police car from “The Green Mile” and a 1964 Ford Mustang he was busy covering with seashells until he got distracted and forgot about it.

Further on, he leads his tour past rows of discarded randomness: a computer motherboard, a sink, the grill from a Mercedes Benz. Then moving past a pair of live turkeys and another dozen cats, he arrives at the heart of Fort Apache: a complete faux Western village.

Jokes and a pocket full of plastic cockroaches

There’s the saloon with five authentic moonshine stills, the blacksmith shop with hanging sculptures made from antlers and the house of ill-repute with warnings to steer clear if nudity offends. For reasons not entirely clear, Varnam’s spectacle includes a Cinderella carriage driven by a skeleton.

“I know you think I’m crazy,” he said at least a dozen times. “You would be surprised how many people leave me money. I’d just leave a donation box and every day there’s $200, $300 in there.”

In his 40 years as a drug lord-turned-informant, Varnam has managed to dodge assassins. But he’s been struck by lighting twice, once while in his cell at Central Prison. His ear still bleeds after 27 years.

“Crazy Dale” Varnam talks about being struck by lightning during an interview on Thursday, February 22, 2024 in Varnamtown, N.C.
“Crazy Dale” Varnam talks about being struck by lightning during an interview on Thursday, February 22, 2024 in Varnamtown, N.C.

He’s also been struck by a car that plowed into Fort Apache in 2018, leaving him with five broken ribs and 16 screws in his legs, forcing him to more or less close the junkyard to visitors.

But Varnam persists knowing he shouldn’t be alive, keeping a large silver crucifix around his neck, glancing up frequently to offer thanks. He’s too busy joking to answer many questions about his cocaine days, still a wild man with a pocket full of plastic cockroaches.

“I graduated from OSMI,” he said, offering a last joke and roach as a goodbye.

“Do you know what OSMI is? Ohio State Mental Institution. I was top 10 in my class.”

“Crazy Dale” Varnam photographed in his Fort Apache on Thursday, February 22, 2024 in Varnamtown, N.C. Fort Apache, Varnam’s creation is an odd collection of old cars, mannequins, toilet bowls, signs and Christmas lights.
“Crazy Dale” Varnam photographed in his Fort Apache on Thursday, February 22, 2024 in Varnamtown, N.C. Fort Apache, Varnam’s creation is an odd collection of old cars, mannequins, toilet bowls, signs and Christmas lights.