The Varnes family knows logging. Florida pine sap has been running through their veins for nearly five generations. Varnes Logging Inc. is owned and operated by its founder, James Varnes, 76, as it has been since it first opened for business on January 1, 1965.
The first generation of the Varnes family to work in the logging industry was James’s grandfather, Bart Varnes. He pulled timber with a mule in the 1920s and 1930s. “It was a hobby, but he made a living at it,” James says. The second generation was James’s father, Julian Varnes, who worked in the woods for more than 40 years, right up until the week before he passed.
It should come as no surprise that Varnes always knew he wanted to work in the woods. He started his own logging company in the middle of high school with $700 worth of equipment: a truck, a crawler tractor and, as he says, “half a chainsaw.”
Varnes explains, “My father told me that he could have given it all to me, but he wanted me to understand that nothing’s going to be given to you, you’ve got to work for everything in this world. And I was just too hard headed to quit.” That determination has kept Varnes Logging busy for nearly 50 years.
It has also fueled a new generation carrying on the legacy. Varnes’ son Darrell, 50, is the fourth generation of the family to work in logging. He started joining his dad in the woods when he was young, and as he got old enough, started working on the crew during summer breaks and after school. “He came up working, not running around with other kids but working– kind of like myself,” Varnes says. One can detect an unmistakable and well-deserved sense of pride in their family tradition of hard work.
Darrell started his own company, Varnes Timber Harvesting, in 1991. “When I started in the business, I wanted to borrow some money (from my father),” Darrell recalls. “He told me I could make it the same way he did: digging, scratching and clawing.”
Even so, Darrell did get his start with a little more advantage than half a chainsaw. He had a brand new Peterbilt for his logging truck. Today Darrell’s company, like his father’s, is also devoted to Caterpillar forestry equipment, running two Cat machines as part of its equipment fleet.
As a young man, Varnes remembers his father pulling a cross cut saw. In fact, that’s how James started learning the business. The next piece of timber cutting equipment they used was a power saw on bicycle wheels, as Varnes recalls. After that, the family upgraded to a chainsaw. The first tractor machine that Varnes remembers his father having was a small D2 Caterpillar bought from Gibbs Corp. of Jacksonville. As Varnes got older and continued to work for his father, he was allowed to be more hands-on, and soon learned to operate machines, starting with a Cat 10.
Logging technology has come a long way over the years, and the Varnes family has stood witness to all kinds of innovations in timber harvesting equipment. Recently, Varnes acquired three new Caterpillar machines—a 559 loader, 553C feller-buncher and 535C skidder—all purchased from Ring Power Corp. in April this year. His operators are pleased with the new pieces.
Josh Carter, the senior member on the Varnes crew, is the feller-buncher operator. He describes the new cutter as smooth and powerful. “It bunches the trees real good, and it’s quiet inside the cab,” Carter says. “I used to run a 553, but the C model is a lot more stable. And the serviceability is a lot better from the ground level – easier to fuel.”
Mike Manning went to work for Varnes not long after Josh as the loader operator. Manning says there is plenty to like in the new loader. “It’s fast, it’s smooth, you don’t burn much fuel. Whatever function you need, it’s right there and ready. The new outriggers make it easy to level the trailer. It’s quieter, it’s got good power, smoother hydraulics, a better trailer.”
Newest team member Caleb Green runs the skidder. “Before I could get out of here yesterday, that boy came and thanked me three times for buying the new skidder,” Varnes chuckles.
Ring Power and Varnes are equally pleased with the ongoing relationship that account manager Todd Mattox has forged with the logging family. “It’s a partnership,” Varnes believes. “I want Ring Power to be there for me when I need them, and they are. (They are) a big outfit. They can afford to take care of you, and they always do.”
Adventures In Logging
Varnes started out swamp logging, and did that until about 1980. When asked why he left the swamp for terra firma, he answers, “Because nobody wants to go work out there! I’ve been standing on the bumper of a skidder in mud up to my chest – stuck – trying my best to get cables attached (to pull it out).” He explains that it took a full day of hard work just to get two full loads. He decided to make the switch when he realized some of his peers, presumably in less difficult terrain, were getting five full loads by 9:30 in the morning.
Moving operations to higher altitudes didn’t mean an end to hard work—or to the adventures inherent in a life in the woods. Varnes says he has seen just about every kind of animal that Florida has to offer: snakes, alligators, bobcats, deer and panthers. Once he wound up raising two orphaned Florida black bear cubs until he could find a permanent home for them at Silver Springs Zoological Gardens. Beyond that, there was the time ran away from him going 40MPH—in reverse.
Even though James and Darrell run two independent crews, they both work with Callahan Timber Co. Inc., owned by William Cook and Jim Coleman. Varnes Logging and Varnes Timber Harvesting have contracted with Callahan for six years. Varnes figures that Callahan Timber has about 16 logging crews working for them. “They are one of the biggest outfits in the Southeast,” he believes. “Been around 75 years at least. We’re their most southern loggers, [because] they work on up into Georgia.”
Both Varnes men are very happy with their partnerships with Callahan. James explains, “Callahan puts their landowners first; this is a good thing. They have owners with very large plots of land all over the Southeast. Their big landowner base keeps us rolling. They don’t drag around, they keep you working.” The Varnes Logging Inc. crew has worked all over the state of Florida on Callahan tracts—from the Georgia line down to Okeechobee and over to Ft. Myers.
For example, the acreage Callahan Timber contracted with Varnes Logging to clear in late April was a 200-acre plot in St. Johns County. The crew had been asked to leave 30 trees per acre. “Callahan does a lot of thinning work,” Varnes says. “Darrell’s crew just did a job for Callahan where he thinned 700 acres out of a 10,000 acre parcel.”
An equally important part of the Varnes Logging operation as the patriarch is its matriarch, Varnes’ wife. Affectionately known by the team as “Miss Jo,” Josette Varnes has kept the books for Varnes Logging since the early 1990s. “Those boys have even got me callin’ her ‘Miss Jo’,” Varnes smiles.
James Varnes has high hopes for the future of the Varnes legacy, because there’s a fifth generation on the horizon. If all goes well, he hopes his granddaughter Amelia, Darrell’s daughter, might join her grandmother in the bookkeeping side of the business. There is also Darrell’s son,Weston Varnes, who will hopefully help run one of the Varnes’ logging businesses one day. He is already out in the woods working with his father and grandfather whenever he can. And who knows? Maybe he will inherit more than a chainsaw for their company’s next phase of growth.
Republished with permission from Southern Loggin' Times