At home in Darien
images and words by Rita Kovtun
With fewer than 1,900 residents, the township of Darien, Georgia is a quintessential outpost of the Deep South.
The coastal municipality sits just 50 miles beneath Savannah, off Highway 17—the caught-in-time thoroughfare Yankees used to travel along to get from New York to Florida. It's a road that has hosted humanity in all its forms, from grifters tricking tourists at clip joints disguised as fruit stands to farmers and fisherman making an honest living by selling produce and shrimp out of the backs of their trucks.
In the summer of 2017, multimedia storyteller Rita Kovtun spent a week in McIntosh County photographing the people of Darien. She took a special interest in their homes—which often tell a story of their own when the inhabitants are absent.
[Scroll to the bottom for a gallery of additional images.]
Dr. William H.A. Collins, 70, shamash, minister of music, historian, former pharmacist, and more:
Dr. Collins lives in a house on a plot of land that has been in his family for more than a century. “The property means more to me than the house because of the fact that it’s been in the family since 1875,” he says. His great-grandfather Cain Hammond originally acquired the land—but it had been sold to someone outside the family by the time Dr. Collins learned about its history. He decided to buy it back and now has a copy of his great-grandfather’s deed. Dr. Collins is a history buff and keeps records, newspaper clippings, certificates, and other documents that he displays around his home.
Dr. Collins' religious résumé is robust: he's the minister of music and organist at Franklintown United Methodist Church in Fernandina Beach, Florida. He is also a shamash (the equivalent of a deacon in the Christian tradition) at the First Tabernacle Beth El in Jacksonville, Florida, and an associate member of Temple Beth Tefilloh in Brunswick, Georgia. He serves the chairman of the McIntosh County Historic Preservation Commission and keeps an office in the Burning of Darien Museum.
RYLEE MAXWELL, 14, beekeeper, student, athlete:
Rylee’s bedroom is the most meaningful space to her in the family home: “My room is a place of comfort. My room provides safety and security. It brings joy to me waking up in the morning seeing the beautiful day outside my windows. All of my favorite things are in my room, or at least the majority. I sleep well in my huge comfy bed where I lay my head, with my million blankets because I have one of the coldest rooms in the house, my soft fluffy pillows, with all my horses watching over me throughout the night.”
Rylee has been keeping bees since she was five. “When my dad’s dad was little, he kept bees, so they were just always around," she says. "My dad walked me through it all, and I kept with it. I love all God’s creatures. Bees are the only insects that don’t prey on other animals. You know how their wings make the buzz noise? It’s because their wings stroke 11,000 times a minute.”
John Ancil Strickland, 68, handyman and retired butcher:
On each anniversary, Ancil gives roses to his wife, Debbie—the number of flowers matching the number of years they’ve been married. He gives her artificial roses because they’ll last forever, just like his love for Debbie. The couple keeps pigs that they slaughter before the year’s first frost. Ancil is a retired butcher who knows how to process each part of an animal. The couple agrees the old way of butchering is dying out.
Debbie Strickland, 54, bookkeeper:
Debbie and Ancil built their house together in the 1980s on land that her grandparents owned. Says Debbie: “It’s home. It’s our home. The best thing is when I get off work and come home. Coming home and his hugs makes my day. I think cause it’s something me and him built together. Through the years there’s been bad and there’s been good. We’ve had deaths. We’ve had weddings. There’s been a lot, and through it all, good or bad, it’s still good.”
Ruby White, 80, town matriarch, legal assistant, mother:
Ruby is directly descended from the McIntoshes, the Scottish Highlanders who settled in McIntosh County in the 1730s. Her granddaughter represents the clan's sixth generation to live in or around Darien (which was originally named New Inverness). The house Ruby lives in was built in the 1800s by a ship captain. “This has been home since Dan and I married," she says. "We moved here, started having our babies, and raised them in this home. This home is filled with a lot of love, which is still ongoing and will be ongoing because the love we share is so special.”
Before he died, Dan was an attorney, and Ruby worked as a paralegal in his office, which she continues to do to this day. As her daughter Amy says, "She’s the brains of the operation." Ruby also owns an antique store that she and Dan opened together. Her son Dan Jr. now runs the shop. “We had a lot of dreams of traveling and doing antiques, but life dictated other things." she says. "Our children like antiques very much. We enjoy the shop and the whole business of antiques, so that's what we call a good life, a fun life.”
Click on the images below to open a lightbox gallery of Rita’s complete take.
Rita Kovtun is a Russian-American writer and photographer working primarily in social documentary and personal narrative. Based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, she has produced written and visual stories for news outlets, independent magazines, and art, cultural, and educational organizations.