Most Interesting: Ralph Varnam

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Ralph Varnam, The Mariner

By Staff Brunswick Beacon

It has filled him with fear and taken him to foreign shores.


It has given him pleasurable days and soot-filled nights.

And it was literally his family’s lifesaver during the Great Depression.

It is saltwater, and the only creatures that have spent more time around it than Ralph Varnam have gills.

Varnam, a World War II veteran, has crossed the Atlantic Ocean more than two dozen times. And that doesn’t even take into account all the years he spent clamming, oystering, shrimping, dredging and tugboating.

Varnam has a quick explanation for his hard-work ethic.

“In those days, if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat,” he said with a grin.

Now, at age 85, Varnam often drives to the landin’, as the locals in Varnamtown call the docks where the shrimp boats and other vessels come in. He talks old times with friends sitting in rocking chairs. He is content to look at the river and remember.


Like most people, Varnam heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor on the radio, and he went to work in Wilmington helping build Liberty ships that carried supplies to troops overseas.

He then joined the Navy in 1943 and began serving on a troop transport.

“We carried troops over to Scotland, England, France, Germany and North Africa,” he said. “On one or two trips, we brought German prisoners back. They were under guard on the ship. We had a small bunch of Marines to guard them.

“We could carry 5,000 troops, and we had 600 in crew. Sailors had to stand watch, paint, cook, do a little bit of everything. We went in convoys, and we generally stayed in the middle.”

His troop transport was accompanied by other vessels, such as destroyers, Liberty ships and oil tankers.

“Several times, the German submarines blew up the tankers,” Varnam said. “You could get bombed from the air, but what worried me were the submarines.”

He remembers times when they had to cut out all lights on the ship to try to hide.

Several times while onshore in England, Varnam heard the shrill sirens signaling a Nazi air raid and had to rush to a British bomb shelter.

“I found good people everywhere,” he said. “I found out if you treat people right, they’ll treat you right.”

If the German air raids and surreptitious submarines weren’t enough to fill sailors with fear, add in a couple of hurricanes while crossing the Atlantic.

“One time they said they clocked winds at 130 miles per hour,” Varnam said.

When the war was over and the Allies had prevailed, his transport brought troops back to Norfolk, Va., Boston and New York City. Some troops were sick and wounded.


During the war, Varnam sent his paycheck home to his sister Lawnie Clemmons, who put it in the bank for him even though he told her to spend some on herself.

He was one of 14 children. Varnam’s mother had died by childbirth in 1926, three years after he was born.

Varnam went to Stanbury School for first through third grades on Stone Chimney Road.

“Miss Lola Swain was the teacher—Ennis’ mother,” Varnam said of the longtime Varnamtown alderman.

Varnam went to fourth through seventh grades at a school on Mount Pisgah Road, and then to Shallotte High School, but his real education came hands-on in the work force.

Varnamtown in the 1920s and ’30s had only two or three farms, Varnam recalled, and they grew tobacco, cotton and butterbeans. When he was 13 or 14 years old, he was paid 50 cents a day to crop tobacco and 8 or 10 cents a hamper for cotton and butterbeans.

“Most people down here fished—clams and oysters and a little bit of shrimping,” Varnam said. “My father fished on Bald Head from July to November. We had to salt popeye mullets and carry them to Southport.”

In the days before refrigeration, how would one preserve fish?

“You split them, take out the insides, wash them in a hamper in the ocean, wrap them in salt and put them in a barrel. In 10 days, you poured the water off and made a salty brine to pour over them. By spring, they’d get iron rust on them if you hadn’t sold them by then. Daddy peddled fish all over Brunswick and Columbus counties.”


After being honorably discharged from the Navy in 1946, Varnam married Beatrice Lancaster from Southport on June 25, 1947. Their children are Howard and Karen.

Howard, who worked for the U.S. Corps of Engineers for 37 years before retiring, was hired last month by Holden Beach town manager David Hewett to oversee the dredging of canals on the island. Howard and his wife, Barbara, live three miles from Ocean Isle Beach.

Varnam’s daughter Karen Harris, who works for Wilmington Eye Associates, and her husband, Charles, live on Oak Island.

Varnam has three grandchildren, and almost all of them graduated from college. One has a master’s degree. He has four great-grandchildren.

Varnam’s wife died last year.

“We lacked four days from being married for 60 years,” Varnam said.

A couple of weeks ago, he walked around the house, grabbing various framed photos of Beatrice and smiling as he proudly showed his wife’s image through the years.


In 1941, before war broke out, Varnam worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps building roads and fire towers at White Lake and fighting forest fires.

“We probably had 50 head there,” he said. “They fed us and gave us a place to sleep and uniforms. We got $30 a month. We only kept $5 and sent $25 home.”

Besides his work as a commercial fisherman, Varnam worked on dredge boats and tugboats from Maryland to Georgia for 22 years. He helped cover up the tubes when the bridge-tunnels were built in Hampton, Va.

“It was horrible work,” he said. “Dredge-boating was hard and dangerous work.”

At times, he lived on the dredge, working 18 days and being home three. He also worked off and on for the Corps of Engineers for three years and cleaned ships from 1947 to ’52 at the layout basin in the Brunswick River near Wilmington.

From 1976 to ’89, he finally took a job on land, working for Brunswick County doing pest control and carpentry work when people were short-handed.


“I remember when there were two or three stills—one in Sunset Harbor and two over here,” Varnam said. “There was plenty of moonshine.”

Once, some of the fishermen on Varnam’s daddy’s crew asked him to find some wine, and he found someone with a barrel of wine in Columbus County.

“He traded fish for the grape wine; the fishermen got drunk, and the women folks wouldn’t speak to Daddy for about a month,” Varnam said with a laugh.

“My Uncle Wesley was a lighthouse keeper for the Cape Fear Lighthouse on Bald Head,” he said. “My grandfather was Sam Varnam, and he lived on a houseboat on Bald Head for 12 years. As a kid, I’d go visit him.”

Going barefooted on the beach was a treat 80 years ago just as it is today.

As he grew into adolescence, Varnam and other boys would put a board with a wire basket across a boat and fill the basket with wood for a fire, which would burn while they went flounder-gigging.

By the time they came home, they were all covered with soot from the fire. But they had fish.

Varnam thought his family “was in high cotton” when it went from having an icebox in the ground to an icebox on the porch. It held a 50-pound block of ice, he said.

He remembers no refrigerators, no electricity, no telephones, no televisions, no paved roads.

His daddy drove a Model T and later a Model A.

“Sometimes you’d get stuck in sandy roads, have to get out and push them,” he said.


Ralph Varnam has been a living shadowbox of memories for Kay Patterson, an Archdale resident whose grandparents have owned property in Varnamtown since her mother was 5 or 6 years old.

Kay and her husband, Jeff, visited often and will soon be moving to Varnamtown with their three children to live on the same property that has been in the family all those decades.

“Ralph Varnam has been my Pe-Paw at the beach since I was born, and his wife was my Me-Maw,” Kay Patterson said. “He’s one of the reasons I want to live here. He is the epitome of what Varnamtown and Holden Beach are—just wonderful, caring, salt-of-the-earth people.”

The Pattersons named their oldest son “Holden” for that family and their daughter “Caroline” for the university where Kay went to school.

Their other son is named Landon Varnam Patterson.

“We actually named Landon for the landin’ where Pe-Paw loves to go to visit,” Kay said. “Everybody here drops the ‘g’ and says, I’m going to the landin’.”

When she isn’t visiting Varnam, she’s calling to check on him.

“It’s just the simple things that make him so wonderful,” she said. “He asked if we could ride around and look at lights. It’s not the glamour to him—it’s the simple things.”

There are 65 dogwoods around Varnam’s house, and he planted every one of them. He reads the magazines “Wildlife” and “Birds and Blooms” from cover-to-cover every month.


On Bald Head Island, Varnam’s father rented the beach to fish on from the people who owned the land. On days when young Ralph went to fish with his father, he attended school in the island’s one-room schoolhouse and then after school would join his father’s crew of 12 to 18 men.

The river and the ocean provided the livelihood for the families of all those men.

“I remember when shrimp sold for 75 cents a bushel,” said Varnam, whose favorite fish to eat are whiting, flounder and spots.

His father fished on Bald Head until 1939 and started fishing on Long Beach (now Oak Island) in 1940. Varnam remembers when the closest house on the beach was seven miles away, and the only things between the house and the fishermen were fish camps.

During the Great Depression, when not many people had money, locals could count on fish for a meal, and people on the mainland would trade things to Varnam’s daddy for his fish.

“He’d take meat, homemade lard, chicken, turkeys, eggs and corn,” Varnam remembered. “Once around Christmastime, he traded for pecans to give to the fishermen’s children.”

Varnamtown had only 14 homes when Varnam was young.

He saw pictures and heard about destitute and hungry men standing in bread lines in the big cities, and it was not lost on him how the Lockwood Folly River protected the people of Varnamtown during the economic crisis.

“We were blessed in this community because we could oyster and clam and fish,” he said. “People could depend on the river to give them food.”

And they have never stopped loving that saltwater friend.