James Carson Varnam was born in Varnamtown, Brunswick County, North Carolina on April 25, 1932. By no initial act on his own part,Carson was unavoidably and immediately connected to the industry of harvesting fish, shrimp, and shellfish from the Lockwood Folly River and surrounding territory by way of his father, Mr. Raymond Corbett Varnam, who was then and throughout his whole life, happily a fisherman by trade. It was only for a short period in Carson’s early childhood that he and his family moved to the community of Crusoe in Columbus County, NC. This was the birthplace of his mother, Martha Mae Etheridge. His family eventually moved back to Varnamtown, when Carson was nine years old. Near the end of the depression, after moving from one borrowed home to another, his father finally built their own home in Varnamtown. It was on the west bank of the Lockwood Folly River, overlooking a wide expanse of marshland and the open bay area.
Now that fact in itself raises an interesting point that must be shared here. Carson’s mom and dad had no idea what the name “Carson” meant. It’s definition is: “Son of the dweller by the marsh”, which is exactly where his father chose to live and raise his family, right by the salt marsh. It did not take long for them to build a dock in front of their house. This allowed them better access to their homemade wooden skiff and the deeper water, which in turn, made their daily journey down the river to go clamming, oystering, fishing, shrimping or whatever it took to live through those hard depression days, easier. It was the river that provided for their way of life as it did for the whole community.
When Carson married his wife, Ms. Marlene Detrich Dixon, on June 4, 1955, they continued to work hard together to make a living from the Lockwood Folly River. In the wake of Hurricane Hazel, in 1954, Carson and some of his friends, did carpentry work on the area’s beaches. He also worked other odd night jobs through the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, at Sunny Point and Brown & Root. Even then, he would work the river during the day and the odd jobs at night. No matter what he did, he always found his way back to the Lockwood FollyRiver, ( Or maybe it found its way back to him!)
When asked once, why he chose the path he did, he said, “Well, when I was little, I worked hard every day in the river to make every dollar I could and later when I got married, and we had children, well…we had to feed them, so…down to the river I went. It has supported us all these years and we have been blessed by God that it has done just that.”
It goes without saying that Carson was a man of deep faith. It was during the very early 1970’s that he started his own home-based business, Carson Varnam’s Shellfish Market (NC-212-SS). It is still in operation and in the same location on Varnamtown Road across from Dixon Chapel United Methodist Church. His business mainly involved the wholesale and retail of local clams and oysters, mostly coming from the local water of Brunswick County and also at times from Horry, Pender, and New Hanover counties.
In 1983, he expanded and built an oyster shucking house so that he could shuck and can oysters trucked in from the Gulf coast. He later added a second business called Marlene’s Crab Shack to sell soft shell crabs down by the marsh. Though fun for him, he did not continue very long with the soft shell business due to the lack of availability of peeler crabs in the local waters. Thusly, he settled for dealing strictly with local clams and oysters sold at his home business.
There is no doubt, even today, why his name became locally synonymous with the sale of shellfish. He was known for what he did best: “Selling local clams and oysters.”
Carson was always trying to find ways of giving back to his community and to the river which allowed him for so long to feed his family. He would say, “God gave to me, so I must give back.” He would always add to that by saying, “….and trust me, you can’t out give God.”
One of his first of man attempts to give back was an effort that continued until his death in 2008. When he would hear of someone that was sick, he would either cook clam chowder to take them or would at least cut out a pint of fresh clams for them to use at a later date. While doing this, he would always share his hopes and concerns for their quick recovery. He expressed his faith in the realization that, for most part, the people did get better. Yet he wanted to do more.
When the concern of future water pollution in the river was brought to the attention of the residents of Varnamtown, he found a way to help. He started a local action group called S.O.S. (Save Our Shellfish). This took place in the mid 1980’s when he received a request from his cousin, Mrs. Arcelia Varnam Smigiel (S.O.S. Group President), to help. Working together with other local resident of Brunswick County they fought to help reduce river pollution.
Later, Carson was asked to become a commissioner for the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission. He accepted and was appointed to that position in October of 1988 by Governor James G. Martin. While a commissioner, Carson worked hard in support of the local seafood industry and was very passionate about doing all that he could to help. He remained a commissioner until the early 1990’s. While on the board he did not have, as he called it, a lot of “book sense” to offer, but he did have a lifetime of experience depending on the resources of the local river. He also had a deep understanding of what it meant to serve, in whatever way one could, to help preserve that resource for future generations.
Sadly, it was on October 24, 2008, that Carson lost his battle with bone cancer. His legacy lives on by way of those who knew and loved him. The photograph, shows him on the last day that he ever visited the Lockwood Folly River for the purpose of going oystering. As you can see, it was a very happy place for him to be. He loved that river. Though gone on home now to heaven, (‘Graduation Day’, as he called it), his business still operates today by the continued work of his wife, Marlene, and his grandson, Michael Carson Fulford.
During the time of his illness with cancer and after his death, a new group has come forward to help protect and promote the local fishing industry. This group is Brunswick Catch. Although Carson was never able to be a member, Carson Varnam’s Shellfish Market is a supporting member of the group. If Carson had remained longer on this earth, he would have assuredly been a member. He always said, “We must all do whatever we can to help“.
Carson Varnam was indeed a good man who loved God, his family, his community, and most certainly, the local rivers. His absence is felt by all who loved him, but memory of him with respect to the man that he was and his love for the river and where he grew up, is clear and ever present in the minds of those still living in his hometown. Such will be true for a long time to come.
Written by: Dewayne Carson Varnam
Photo by: Jan Varnam White
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