Adventures on a treasured island
This eclectic chair was custom made for the Varns by renowned cowboy artist George Ivey. A great home for parties, there is formal seating for 35 people. ROB DOWNEY PHOTOS
Western St. Lucie homestead provides great place to raise children and flocks of fowl
BY GREG GARDNER
Suzanne Varn’s four children led a charmed life growing up at the end of the St. Lucie River surrounded by water and wildlife.
“We were like the Swiss Family Robinson,” says son David. “It was always an adventure. It was a really great time and we could explore the forest on our own little island. We loved having fish fries and cookouts on the deck.”
Built in 1978, the rustic Old Florida home known as Lost River sits on 8 acres just west of the spillway that marks the end of 10 Mile Creek waterway for boaters. A rickety wooden bridge spans the creek west of I-95 in Fort Pierce.
ALWAYS SOMETHING TO DO
“It was what we wanted it to be, a wonderful place to raise kids,” says Susanne Varn, who drew up the plans for the house on a piece of graph paper. “We never took it for granted. The kids could go barefoot, paddle up the river in canoes with the dog paddling behind them, camp out in tents, catch minnows or shoot a raccoon that attacked one of their dad’s ducks.”
Varn says her three sons loved to build fires, often burning yard waste and Brazilian pepper trees. One day she heard some loud explosions and saw smoke. The boys had started the fire and it caught some bamboo stalks on fire, causing the loud blasts. It was the one and only time the fire department was called to Lost River.
Myron “Mac” Varn was a community leader and second-generation citrus man who bought the property from his father for $1. “It was a great privilege that Mac’s father gave us this land,” Varn says. “My husband cleared this land himself by hand. Before that, you couldn’t walk 10 feet.”
Since her husband died in 2003, Varn has continued to maintain the property, keeping overgrowth at bay. Legendary cattleman Bud Adams has confirmed that as a young boy he kept his first cow on the island.
“This area was the wild, wild west of St. Lucie County,” Varn says. “We found the barbed wire fencing and Bud remembered it well. This was way before the (Army) Corps (of Engineers) cut the river in front of the house and changed the dynamics of water flow forever. Thus, we have the Lost River.”
A vaulted wooden ceiling and walk-around balconies are above the formal dining room.
PERFECT FOR DUCK DADDY, TOO
It was the ideal location for Duck Daddy to set up operations. Mac Varn used the pantry as an incubation room to raise ducks, Canada geese and turkeys. “It was a funny, strange and beautiful relationship,” Varn says. “They must have come out of the egg saying, ‘Are you my mother?’ Each hatchling bonded with Mac upon first glance. Every morning he would walk to the bridge for his newspaper, wearing his Gator briefs, carrying his coffee and leading the flock of goslings all the way down the driveway and back. The dogs followed along just like it was normal.
“If anyone found a turkey nest without a mama, they knew to call Mac, who would come and get the eggs, incubate them and raise them up. Then they would be turned out to live on the property,” she says.
The grown turkeys were sent to live out their lives at a preserve in Ocala. Varn had a nesting room built outside the house, but Mac discovered the temperature outside wouldn’t work for the mothers to lay their eggs. Today that small screened room can be pressed into service for parties. Over the years more than a dozen charity events have been held at Lost River as well as annual get-togethers for Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. There is formal seating for 35 people. If the weather is good the property has room for tables and chairs everywhere without having to pitch a tent.
TURKEYS JOIN THE PARTY
“This is one party house,” Varn says. “Their (turkeys) favorite roost was a huge limb beside our porch. Our home was a great place to have a party, and one night we had formal tables on the porch for a gathering of supporters for St. Andrew’s School. Phil Gates laughed in his usual boisterous manner. The turkeys began to gobble loudly. Then silence. Phil laughed again. The turkeys returned with a chorus and the whole party broke out in hilarity. That was in the ’90s and no one remembers what they ate, but everyone remembers the turkeys and Phil’s laughter. What a night!”
The 3,800-square-foot house at Lost River oozes Old Florida. Varn’s vision of the house was built without formal drawings.
“This house was designed to be seen from the inside out,” she says. The crown molding throughout the home has a real wood finish and is not painted, a rare design choice. The wooden staircase in the foyer, with vaulted ceiling, has a landing on the way to the second floor.
Pete Peterson, who just turned 98, is a family friend who built the home at Lost River. “It was all Suzanne’s ideas and I just put them together,” he says. “They threw some mighty nice parties there. It was fun to build because it was so difficult. It’s such a peaceful place.”
Necessity drove several changes to the home. Outside the foyer, Varn had a deck built that serves no purpose other than to make it simple to wash the windows without standing on a ladder. The nook off the family room used to open out to a deck before it was converted to a bay window and a bar was built into the closet. Today it is used for craftwork. “I love taking nothing and making something out of it,” she says.
When they ran out of money to finish the kitchen countertop with butcher block, the Varns discovered bowling lane wood for sale by Jensen Beach Bowl. The 10 black spots for the pins grace the corner.
Cowboy artist George Ivey fashioned the custom-built buffet shelf from wood reclaimed from the river bottom. The living room ceiling is made from 2-by-2 cypress boards of different textures and sizes.
Winding through the pergola are six very old cuttings that over the years have covered the structure. This is the area where Varn does most of her gardening these days.
BOTANICAL GARDEN ALL ITS OWN
“My husband was the outside guy, and he had the vision,” says Varn as she walks through the outskirts of the properties pointing out her ongoing clearing projects. In her Old Florida speak she talks about the hurrikins of 2004-5 and how the family lost 200 trees.
After she had to hold the French doors shut in the master bedroom during one of the storms, Varn took out the doors and replaced the existing deck with a closed-in alcove. “It unnerved me, so I closed in the porch,” she says.
Lost River is its own botanical garden of 25 orchids hanging around with plants and trees everywhere — all surrounded by water. The pergola off the main deck is covered with six different sprouts from a tree first planted in 1968. “The plants here are old and they have come from everywhere,” Varn says.
Painted buntings know where the place is. They arrive in October and whistle to the others where the food is, says Varn. Every morning she makes her coffee and feeds the fish and birds before taking her seat on the deck to enjoy the show.
“I am going to miss the freedom here,” Varn says. “One person does not need this much space.”
Lost River is listed for sale at $495,000 by Adena Williams of Coldwell Banker Paradise.