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Varnamtown man masters vessel-making

By Laura Lewis, Reporter

VARNAMTOWN—At 95, Weston Varnam has finally retired from building boats.

But it wasn’t that long ago the former Varnamtown-area shrimp boat captain was building boats large and small.

“His daddy [Johnnie Varnam] was a boat builder,” Mary Varnam, Varnam’s wife of 65 years, said as the two relaxed in the carport at their home on Stone Chimney Road near Varnamtown.

“My daddy was a boat builder, my uncle was a boat builder,” Varnam said, relaying the skill runs in the family.

“And I had four brothers, and they was all boat builders,” Varnam added.

But his dad didn’t teach them how to build boats, Varnam said.

“He just built boats and we hung around while he was doing it,” he chuckled.

His dad, Johnnie, was from the Sunset Harbor area. When he was 10, he visited a Southport boat shop owned by a man named Manuel. Manuel invited Johnnie to come and live with him and learn how to build boats.

“His mama didn’t care. His daddy was dead, and so he moved in with Manuel,” Varnam said. “And that’s how he learned how to build boats.”

Varnam estimates he’s built 300 boats during the years—from life-size shrimp boats to smaller, model-sized shrimp boats.

One of Varnam’s handmade wooden crafts graces the Varnams’ front yard.

He also built locally renowned shrimp boats that operated out of Varnamtown, including the Andrea Dawn previously owned and operated by Danny Galloway, and the Bug Hunter that was owned and operated by commercial fisherman Billy Caison, who died four years ago.

“We fished it from Mississippi to Texas,” Mary said.

She said her husband built three boats in the yards around here.

Varnam said his secret to boat-building is “the poorhouse”—motivation to keep from going broke.

Though age and health have led to Varnam’s retirement from crafting crafts, his lifelong skill still draws attention. Just this summer, people asked Varnam about boat-building.

“We’ve been married 65 years today,” Mary said as the two sat in their carport at their home on Stone Chimney Road on Aug. 9.

“I didn’t know that,” her husband quipped.

As for how long he was a shrimp boat captain, Varnam said, “I don’t know—15 or 20 years.”

Mary said she guessed her husband was a shrimp boat captain for closer to 25 years.

Varnam says he’s loved living near Varnamtown all these years, mostly because “they let me stay here,” he joked, laughing.

“And we have wonderful neighbors,” Mary said. “All around us.”

Their home is conveniently across the street from the Driftwood Grill, which Mary says serves breakfast and lunch and closes at noon.

So is the food there any good?

“I couldn’t tell you,” Mary said, laughing.

As he’s grown older, Varnam had to stop building boats. He said if it weren’t for the walker he uses to get around, he’d fall down.

He’s lived in Varnamtown since he was a year and a half old. He said he was born up the road in an area that they called “Outback, about 5 miles from here—out towards Supply. That’s what we called it.”

In his nine-plus decades living in this area, Varnam says there hasn’t been much change.

“Not too much in Varnamtown,” he said. “Maybe a little bit.”