After finishing Cedar Key, FL I drove west along the Florida panhandle towards Alabama. The plan was to make Bayou La Batre, AL town eight of my This is America Too project. Yet last minute research showed me that it was Spring Break in that area, so my plan needed revising. There was a late cold spell covering much of the country and a priority was to avoid it. The Georgia coast seemed like a sensible choice and after a bit of searching I discovered the town of Darien, the second oldest in Georgia. With a population of 1,900, it was a perfect fit for the project, and still far enough south I could find reasonably warm temperatures. After a bit more time exploring the Florida panhandle I made the drive from the Apalachicola National Forest to Darien with high hopes.
Entering Georgia I was surprised how quickly the scenery changed. I passed through quaint towns centered around churches, along roads lined with live oaks draped in Spanish moss. I felt I was entering the South of my imagination, and throughout my visit to Darien it became a reoccurring sensation. The day was mostly clear but as I approached Darien it grew cloudy and rainy. I eventually hit the coast and shot north into town. I took a quick drive around Darien and got the impression that it had a dark presence. I attributed my feelings to the gloomy weather but later learned it indeed had a troubled past. I only spent minutes there before heading out to my presumed home for the next week. I felt good about my choice for town eight.
The closest campground, located in the Altamaha Regional Park, was about twenty-five miles in the direction I had just come from and the cheapest option for lodging. The following two days called for rain and I didn’t want to start my visit to Darien with bad weather, so I decided to wait until the storms passed before going back. Located on the edge of the wildlife management area that shares its name, the grounds were decent but the weather was brutal. For two days, it rained on and off and at night dropped below freezing. I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that it was as cold on the southern Georgia coast in March as it had been in far northern Ely, Minnesota in January. I spent the days running errands, exploring other parts of the coast, and finally on my third night, made my plans to return to Darien the following morning.
When I woke I showered, paid for another night, and headed out along the same route I had three days earlier. I entered town and drove through it along Hwy 17 to get a feel for its size. After making a pass, I doubled back and stopped at the Friendly Express gas station to use the bathroom and get breakfast. The clerk was making personal pizzas so I waited and chatted with her a bit. It was my first interaction in Darien and I already got a sense people were friendly. When my pizza was finished I paid, thanked the clerk, and proceeded to devour it in my van.
Before exploring the town I decided to drive north again, this time along the coast to the Sapelo Island visitor center. I had read online that the island was state protected and had a small community of slave descendants still residing there. It seemed important to the region and I wanted to visit. On arrival, I was told there were state-run tours on Wednesdays and Saturdays, otherwise I would need a sponsor to get on the ferry over. Since it was Wednesday, I booked a spot on the Saturday tour. Content with the outcome of my morning mission, I drove back to Darien ready to roam.
I parked downtown and grabbed my camera to wander. I walked the few blocks that made up the business district; the mix of restaurants, small boutique shops, and abandoned storefronts gave me a sense it was a town surviving on tourism and maybe small industry. I wondered how many of the businesses were longstanding compared to new endeavors hoping to make it. Venturing further I was amazed at the number of churches that dotted the town, there was no denying I was in the South. Eventually I walked towards the banks of the Altamaha River that makes up the southern border of Darien. I read some historical markers, took photos of the nocturnal shrimping boats in their daytime slumber, and examined the ruins of buildings burned during the Civil War, a reminder of a town wiped away by the Union in a night. When I exhausted the riverfront, I stopped at a restaurant on the water called Skippers.
The place seemed classy with a hardwood and brick interior decorated in a nautical theme. It was empty with only a very young looking bartender who appeared to be setting up for the day. I asked if they were open and got a friendly yes as I sat at the bar. I ordered a Sweetwater 420, an extra pale ale from the Sweetwater brewery out of Atlanta that had already become one of my favorites in the region. I struck up a conversation, learned his name was Noah, and that he was only nineteen. Who knew you didn’t have to be twenty-one to bartend in Georgia? I told him about the project and why I was in town. He mentioned his family had been in Darien for several generations and is well known, but that he wasn’t so familiar with their history. His uncle was the better source and he said he would try talking to him about meeting me. The more we talked the more intrigued I was by him. By the time I finished my first beer I was already asking if he would be willing to sit down and interview with me. I stayed for a second beer and finally thought it best to move on but first exchanged numbers with Noah who agreed to meet me the next day for a tour and possibly interview. I left feeling good about my first contact in Darien unaware just how infamous Noah’s family was in the little town, but over my stay I would find out.
After Skippers I began to roam the residential part of town but it wasn’t long before the beers ran through me and nature called. I decided to stop at the Blue Bay Mexican Grill, partly because it was close and open, but also because I wanted to see what a Mexican restaurant in such a small town offered. Not wanting to be rude and just use their toilet, I sat at the small bar and ordered some chips and a Pacifico. I looked over the menu and the dishes offered gave me a sense that the food was legit. Sipping my beer I overheard the owners talking a few feet away so I stuck up a conversation to learn more about the place. The two were younger guys from Brunswick but were only a generation from Mexico. Their family had a successful restaurant in Brunswick, and were opening another on nearby St. Simons Island. This location had only been open a short time but was doing well. Everyone there was very friendly and after I finished up my beer I told them I would make it back to eat before leaving town.
Back outside I wandered, capturing glimpses of Darien with my camera, when just after photographing a beautiful dogwood covered in Spanish moss, a woman called to me from the porch of the home it sat in front of. I almost walked on thinking she was angry I took a photo of her home without permission, but timidly walked over to see what she wanted. I said hello and she started to grill me about what I was doing but I did not feel animosity in her voice. I explained the project to her and she was very intrigued. She was older, had a heavy southern accent, and introduced herself as Martha. She told me the owner of the house, Steve, was in Jacksonville, FL because he was very sick and she was caring for the place and his dog. They were trying to sell the home and she thought I was a potential buyer.
We talked for about fifteen minutes before she asked me if wanted to stay in the house during my visit since the campground was so far out and it was cold. I was shocked and couldn’t process such a kind, unexpected offer. I wondered why she suggested it and what she wanted from me, but didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to stay at a house in town. I said sure so she brought me inside, introduced me to the dog Claire-bear, and showed me the room I’d stay in. She lived just across the street and told me she would fix it up that night and we could meet the next day at one so I could get the key. We exchanged numbers and I left, amazed at and suspicious of her kindness.
I continued to explore, enjoying how the churches, trees, and architecture made Darien so different from any other town I had visited for the project. Similar to entering Georgia days earlier, I got the feeling that I was in the cliché Deep South town I always carried in my imagination. As the day drew on, I grew tired, but decided I’d make one last stop into the Water Front Wine & Gourmet, a small wine-shop and bar downtown. They had a small but decent selection of beers on tap and a number of wines by the glass. I opted for a beer and sat at one of the few open tables to take in the atmosphere. The place was filled with a more affluent crowd, what one would expect of a wine bar I guess, and although the vibe was pleasant, it wasn’t really my thing. I only stayed for a beer and thought I might return later in my visit to see if the cliental was any different but never made it back.
After leaving, I made the thirty-minute drive to the campground. The night was already getting cold as I made dinner and tried to do some work in the van. I contemplated if I would pack up in the morning, trusting Martha was being genuine with her offer, but thought it best to pay for another night in case it fell through. I slept in the van again and it ended up being the coldest night yet. The temperature got down to twenty-seven degrees and I froze. As I laid bundled up, I hoped Martha’s offer was legit and it would be my last time sleeping at the campground since warmer weather was not in forecast.
When I woke I had a hard time prying myself from under the covers and it was only the meeting with Noah that morning that finally got me out of bed. I made coffee and contemplated a shower but realized my time was running short. I paid for one more day at the campground before setting off. In town I pulled up to where I was supposed to meet Noah and as I was sitting there, assuming I was late, I saw him approaching. I got out of the van and he apologized for his tardiness and explained he was waiting on something from the hardware shop and would be back in just a moment. When he returned I jumped in his car for my personal tour of McIntosh County.
From the start I could tell he had pride in his county, so much so he was starting a clothing line called Buccaneer Republic that focused on it. He took me first to the very old St. Andrews cemetery explaining he had family members buried there. We talked a little about his past and how he didn’t have strong ties to his father’s side which was most known in the county. Next we meandered up the coast and he showed me where he was raised by his aunt and uncle. We passed the Native Woods nudist campground and he told stories about infiltrating it as a kid, then we stopped at an old, supposedly haunted house that he and his friends attempted to break into when they were younger. He took me to what claimed to be the smallest church in the U.S. that he explained was recently burned down and rebuilt. We stopped at an old bank vault in the middle of the woods and he showed me where his grandmother’s property was as we made a full loop through the county. It was quite the tour!
Back in Darien we drove through the poorer part of town and we talked about relations between the black and white populations. He showed me spots where there were black only underground parties and casually explained that the one funeral home was for the black population so whites had to go to Brunswick for funeral service. Although he didn’t give me a sense he was in any way approving of the segregation that still exists there, he did speak of it as though it was the norm. It was another of those moments where I felt, this is the South I expected. After a couple of hours, we were back downtown and I had to go meet with Martha, but we agreed to meet for lunch.
I rushed to the house I might be staying at and walked around the perimeter, gave a knock, but no one was there; I thought it might have been too good to be true. I took out my phone to call Martha and noticed there was a missed call from her. I returned it and she said she would be right over. It was real! When Martha arrived we chatted, she showed me the place, and we worked out a system with the key so both of us could come and go as needed. She mentioned she was on the way to Jacksonville to visit Steve but that she would fix up the bed for me before leaving. I also had to run but mentioned it would be nice to talk later that evening. I left feeling overjoyed I wouldn’t be spending another night outdoors and in awe that I would really have a free home to stay in.
I met Noah at the Blue Bay Mexican Grill and when I got there the owner recognized me and gave a friendly wave. I ordered chicken fajitas that were delicious and a steal for ten dollars. When we finished we popped over to his place for a short interview. He had a nice one bedroom in the center of town. We talked about what I was looking for but when I brought out the recorder and told him the interview would go on the website he got nervous. I tried to calm him explaining that if he didn’t like how the interview turned out I wouldn’t post it, but it didn’t work so well. I couldn’t get him to talk and didn’t want to push since he had been so kind. It ended up being a pretty short interview, less than twenty minutes. We talked a more once I turned off the recorder and before I left I mentioned we should meet up again.
That morning I had parked outside the Burning of Darien Museum. I checked its hours on the way back to the van and a small sign explained the museum was only open on Saturdays, the same time I planned to be on Sapelo Island. There was also a number provided to schedule a private visit so I called. A friendly gentleman named Will answered and I explained why I was in town and wanted to visit the museum. He wasn’t available but said he would contact the caretaker to setup a visit. It was more than I expected and I told him I would wait for his call. With time to kill, I wanted to return to the St. Andrews cemetery and explore on my own. On the way there Will called and told me Dr. Collins would be able to meet me in forty minutes if I was free. I thanked him and said I’d be there.
I still had time and continued to the cemetery. Originally it was a private burial ground for Thomas Spalding whose mainland home, now a historical landmark called the Ashantilly home, was adjacent to the plot. Spalding was an influential politician and agriculturalist during the first half of the 19th century who owned Sapelo Island. There he cultivated Sea Island cotton using slave labor and advanced agriculture techniques. The cemetery was given to the St. Andrews Episcopal Church in 1867 by Spalding’s son Charles and the land was consecrated a decade later and given its current name. I strolled the grounds marveling at the blooming dogwoods, live oaks, and extravagant grave markers now weathered by the Georgia sun. I searched for graves dating back to Spalding’s era but found none. I was intrigued by a patch of small gravestones marking the final resting place of Civil War soldiers, which were decorated with confederate flags. It was a stark reminder of where I was.
Back at the museum I waited outside and not long after arriving I saw a well-dressed gentleman walking up carrying some papers. I guessed it was the doctor so I got out to greet him. I briefly explained why I was in town and I asked about his background. As we entered the museum, he explained he was from the Jacksonville area and years ago, while doing genealogy research, he found his family had roots in Darien. He came to town to learn more and discovered that his grandfather once had a home there in a historically black neighborhood. Through deeper research, Dr. Collins learned that a Georigia Senator owned the home and was eventually able to buy it. He continued exploring his family’s past, joking that often family members were not so thrilled with what he dug up. Now he lived in town, helped run the museum, and was active in Darien’s historical society. It was a fascinating story and I guessed he was a fascinating man.
He started to give me a tour but I could see he had business to attend to so I told him I was ok on my own. The museum is set in a lovely old home but the exhibits were limited to just two rooms. The first explored the roots of the town and how the original Scottish Highland settlers were anti-slavery but eventually succumbed to financial pressures and began to import slaves to work the region’s rice plantations. It is a lot of history to fit in one room and I wished it could have been more expansive. Room two held an abundance of information on the incident that changed the face of Darien. The exhibit ran through the history of Darien at the outbreak of the Civil War, describing how McIntosh County had over a 2:1 ratio of slaves to whites. It retraced how a naval blockade in early 1863 pushed town folks out of the region and left Darien deserted by the time Union troops arrived. It finished by depicting how the town was needlessly burned to the ground. The story left no doubt that it was a mistake and showed how those in charge felt guilt for the incident. I found it to be a sad yet compelling history but only the first chapter of Darien’s troubled past.
I sat with Dr. Collins in his office before leaving and asked if he knew someone who would interview with me for the project. He thought for a minute then told me that evening there was the monthly historical society meet up at the Fort King George State Historic Site. If I came he would sponsor my visit and try introducing me to some people. I was taken aback by the offer, but gladly accepted. Less than two days in town and I was given a personal tour, a free home to stay in, and now an invitation to join a lecture with the historical society. In the last town of the project, Cedar Key, FL, I was given my first taste of southern hospitality. Darien was offering a full meal. Once again, this little town was proving to be exactly what I always pictured the South to be.
I returned to the house to shower assuming Martha had already gone to Jacksonville. When I entered, Claire, the old but large dog living there, was a little standoffish. I tried to get her to come to me but she wasn’t having it. If we didn’t get along I couldn’t stay. Luckily Martha hadn’t gone to Florida and was on the front porch. When she stepped in and Claire-bear recognized Martha was ok with me, she warmed up. For the rest of the stay we were best buds. Martha told me she postponed the trip because she wasn’t feeling well.
We sat talking for a bit; I told her about my visit to the museum, meeting the doctor, and his invitation. Mostly we talked about Noah, who I mentioned was the great grandson of the late Sheriff Tom Poppell. To anyone in Darien this name represents a dark period in the town’s history. That afternoon chatting with Martha I was first enlightened on the actions of the infamous Sheriff Poppell who ran the county like a classic Boss-Hog for three decades in the mid-20th century, never losing an election during his reign. As my time in Darien progressed, I would hear the name brought up repeatedly, often with nothing good being said.
In short, Thomas Poppell followed in his father’s footsteps and was elected sheriff of McIntosh County in the late 1940s. At the time, the county had a majority black population and Poppell placated the black community in a number of ways, mostly just treating them like humans, which was a rarity in the Jim Crow South. Yet his kindness was not altruistic but a ploy to get votes and manipulate blacks out of property. During my stay I heard many stories, the most common was about stopped semi trucks passing through McIntosh County and Darien along the main highway to Florida at the time, US 17. At times it would be someone on his force who stopped the driver for a minor infraction, or the truck just broke down, and when this happened Poppell would let locals raid the truck’s cargo like a modern day Robin Hood. There are also stories of how for a kickback he allowed drug smuggling, gambling dens, and prostitution houses throughout the county, or how those who rubbed him the wrong way often just disappeared. He was described as a benevolent dictator but his tactics were successful. The only thing that ended his reign was his death in the late 1970s. His story seemed like a work of fiction or a Hollywood movie about the seedy Deep South, yet there I was meeting people who lived through it.
After some time Martha left but told me she would return in an hour to introduce me to a neighbor. I showered, cracked a beer, and relaxed on the front porch with Claire. The porch was screened, like the type I always imagined folks in the South sitting on, fanning themselves on a balmy summer afternoon while sipping lemonade. I thought to myself that it was uncanny how Darien played into all the clichés I had of the South. I understood the need for the screen, cringing at the idea of how brutal the bugs must be during the warmest months; even with the screen the gnats were still able get in and attack. As I sat taking in the experience, Tony and Susanne, whom Martha wanted to introduce me to, stopped by. We made some small-talk and I told them we would come by soon.
Martha was later than expected and when we got to Tony’s house it was almost time for me to leave for the lecture. I felt bad because they had wine and snacks laid out. I spent a little time with them explaining my project and why I was in Darien. We talked about people that might be good interviews and Tony was especially insistent that I meet with people from the black community. The idea seemed obvious but I realized that I hadn’t yet interviewed a person of color for the project, mostly due to the makeup of the towns I visited to that point. I told them about my meeting with Dr. Collins and his invitation as a way of explaining why I couldn’t stay longer. They understood and I excused myself but we made plans to meet the next day. Although we didn’t get much time to connect, I had a feeling I would build a stronger relationship with them while I was there.
I rushed to the van and drove to the park for the event hoping I wouldn’t be too late. I arrived just before seven and luckily Dr. Collins was arriving at the same time. He greeted me and then introduced me to a couple of older women, explaining what I was doing. We then headed into the auditorium where I signed in as his guest. The room was full with close to fifty people, more than I expected. The speaker was an architectural historian speaking about the Aludbrass Plantation that Frank Lloyd Wright designed and built in the 1940s which is an hour-and-a-half north of Darien near Yemassee, SC. The story of the home was interesting, why Wright had been commissioned to build it, that it was never totally finished, and how it was now owned by movie producer Joel Silver and open to the public one weekend every two years. It was pretty nerdy stuff but I found it fascinating.
When it was finished Dr. Collins introduced me to Buddy, the head of the historical society. I told him what I was doing and he explained under other circumstances he would be delighted to sit down with me but he was leaving town that night and wouldn’t be back for a week. Dr. Collins didn’t give up and while I sat talking to Buddy’s dad about Darien he worked the room to get me an interview. Eventually he returned with the numbers of the women I met when I arrived and told me to give them a call the following day. I was surprised at how helpful he was and as we were leaving I thanked him for everything he had done.
I grabbed some beer and a pizza and returned to the house for my first night there. I found Martha on the porch with Claire-bear and we talked a bit. She mentioned Tony wanted to bring me to meet his friend Dwight Hall the next day around 2:30 if I was free and I told her I would be. She didn’t stay long and once she left I opened a beer and ate my bad, gas-station pizza.
Alone with just Claire I began to check out the house, pondering where I was staying. Steve’s home was definitely lived in and rustic, but quaint and comfortable. The walls were covered with a mix of abstract art, family photos, and mundane pictures. It wasn’t dirty nor clean, and as I sat at the kitchen table writing I would catch the random roach popping in and out of the cupboards by the sink, something I figured was inevitable in a subtropical climate. Parts of the home were cluttered with everyday things, bills, notes, newspapers, which gave me the sense his departure was rushed and unplanned. The bathroom was equipped to aid someone with disabilities so I guessed he must have been living there until possibly an accident or his illness became too much to handle. I got the slight sense I was a tourist of someone’s life but I have slept in a variety of spots in my time, ranging from the odd to the downright disgusting; this was going to be fine and I felt grateful to Martha for providing me a home to stay in, no matter the condition. Eventually I crawled into my tiny bed and turned the space heater to full blast. It was another cold night and I was content to be indoors.
The next morning I had no pressing business so I lounged with my coffee and computer doing some research and writing. Eventually I got moving and drove to the campground to get my tent. On the way back to town I stopped to check out the ruins of the Butler Island Plantation that sit just south of Darien, across the Butler River. The plantation was established in the late 18th century by Major Pierce Butler, one of the country’s founding fathers. He cultivated rice and as one of the largest plantations in the South, it played a major role in the importation of slaves to the area. I walked the grounds imagining what a deplorable scene it must have been in its heyday, especially considering the difficulty of rice cultivation. One interesting story about the island is how a couple decades before the Civil War, Butler’s grandson Pierce brought his wife, who was a famous British actress named France Kemble, to the plantation. Horrified by the treatment of the slaves, she wrote and published a book about her experience on the plantation that many believe played a part in deterring Britain from supporting the Confederates during the war.
On the way back to the house I got a text from Dr. Collins inviting me to service at the Jewish Temple in Brunswick to see how Jews in the South celebrate. I was interested and I let him know I would be in touch. At Steve’s I called the two numbers that I was given the night before and left messages explaining who I was and why I was calling. I then phoned Will Wilson whom had asked me to give him feedback on my visit the museum the day before. We talked for nearly half-an-hour and he told me he and his wife lived in Athens but had an affinity for Darian, McIntosh County, and the history of the region. He told me of the banking history of Darien, the Georgia gold rush, the town’s ties to Jekyll Island, and its role in the creation of the Federal Reserve. Darien’s history was deeper and more complex than imagined and I realized my time there would only scratch the surface. Before ending the conversation, we agreed to try and meet up when I was in the Athens area.
Soon after hanging up I received another call from Lloyd Flanders. She told me she got my message and was available to meet that afternoon. We set a time and I got her address. Before meeting Tony I wanted lunch so I walked to a small market nearby called Turnip Greens. It was cute and specialized in local produce and goods (I even found Noah’s Buccaneer Republic shirts there), but nothing for lunch. I popped around the corner to the Zio Carlo Cafe instead. Inside was sterile but inviting and I ordered a Mediterranean style sandwich. As I sat eating my tasty meal I eavesdropped on a woman from one of the universities interviewing with some locals about climate change, hurricanes, and what it meant to a community so close to the coast. It was a reminder of where I was and how climate change was an everyday reality in the small towns dotting the coast.
On arriving at Tony’s we set out for a walk to Dwight’s house. We passed through what Tony explained was the historically black and less affluent part of town and aside from a few homes that looked decrepit, almost to the point of abandonment, it seemed like the rest of Darien. When we arrived to Dwight’s large home, which sits on a tributary of the Altamaha River, I was impressed. He was in his yard working on a play-house he was building for a charity raffle. He came off as extremely friendly, down to earth, and had a great sense of humor. Freddy, a school-hood friend of Dwight’s, was also there and we chatted while they worked. The conversation flowed like we were all old friends and for one of the first times in the South I felt like I was around folks that I shared a world view with. We joked about the current political situation in the country, something I have learned to avoid while working on this project. I eventually asked about an interview and we agreed to meet up after the weekend on the following Monday. Tony and I said our goodbyes and continued our stroll.
As we walked, I learned Tony had lead a very interesting life. We talked about all the different locations he traveled, his life as a jazz trombonist, his career as an essayist, poet, and professor. I even learned his cousin was the very famous Joss Whedon. I was in awe of all he had done and felt honored to be walking along with him and him showing respect for what I was doing. We ended back at Tony’s and it was nearly time to meet with Lloyd. Before I left, he invited me to dinner that night so he could introduce me to a friend and I gladly agreed to join them. With the night’s plan secured I texted Dr. Collins and explained I couldn’t make it to Temple before driving over to Lloyd’s home.
When I arrived I was greeted and invited into the home. Lloyd was very welcoming and as soon as I sat down she started to show me scrap books from different trips she has made, including one to Antarctica. I was in awe of how traveled she was; she had been to all seven continents and in her 80s was still planning trips. We eventually started the interview and chatted for over thirty minutes. She was well spoken and able to pull up memories with no problem. Her family were some of the first Scots to settle Darien and her grandfather was the first mayor. I could tell there was pride in the family, which seemed more common in the South. We also talked about growing up in Darien, what race relations were like, the reality of living on the East Coast during WWII, and even how her truck appeared in the movie Forest Gump. By the time I left, we were the best of friends and as I departed we shared a big hug. I wished her the best on her future travels and she did the same. I left feeling good having met this amazing woman and that I had my first real interview of Darien done.
Back at the house I wanted to shower, but not long after getting there Martha showed up just having returned from Jacksonville. We talked a little and then I realized it was nearly time to be at the restaurant. Martha wanted to freshen up so I went alone to meet Tony, Susanne, and their friend Maryam. They decided on Blue Bay Mexican Grill, which was ok with me. I found the three of them at a back table, said my hellos and introduced myself to Maryam. I mentioned Martha would be running late but I knew what she wanted. We placed our orders; I got the chicken fajitas again since I’m a man of habit.
Martha arrived shortly after and we sank into a conversation that flowed as if we had known each other for decades. I told Maryam about my project and she explained the work she did for the University of Georgian on Sapelo Island. The most interesting story of the night however came from Tony. He told us of a time he and Susanne were somewhere in Northern Africa and had been with a group of people doing a séance. At one point they contacted the dead who told them to leave them be or face violent repercussions. According to Tony, later that night the two of them were in bed when they were lifted a foot or more into the air and moved around the room by some unexplained force. What made the story was Susanne’s interruption to tell Tony that he was being overdramatic, it was only half a foot that they were lifted into the air. After dinner we all left together and parted ways. Maryam and I exchanged information and Martha drove me home.
I woke up early the next morning glad to see the weather was warming. I headed to Sapelo Island for my tour. At the dock, I lined up with other tourists and local commuters to wait for the ferry. The ride over was short and when we arrived to the island our group of twenty or so boarded an old school bus. We stopped at a few sights but it felt rushed. I didn’t learn much about the community of slave decedents and we didn’t get to explore the house once owned by Thomas Spalding and later RJ Reynolds. The highlight was the lighthouse and getting a chance to climb the stairs. One thing that struck me was all the damage from hurricane Mathew, and when I returned to the mainland and tried to go for a hike along one of the trails near the visitor center, it too was still impassable because of debris left from the storm. I thought of Cedar Key and remains there of the destruction caused by Hurricane Hermine. Like the conversation I overheard at the café the day before, it was a sober reminder of the precarious conditions people on the southeastern coast live with.
After the tour, I stopped at the Ashantilly house, the mainland home of Thomas Spalding. I was there briefly to grab some photos and then continued to B&J’s Steakhouse and Seafood for lunch. B&J’s is a staple restaurant of Darien and I knew that at some point during the visit I would have to stop in. Even at 2:30 in the afternoon its parking lot was full. I went in and luckily got a table right away. The interior is a throwback to the seventies, complete with wood paneling and cafeteria tables to match. I ordered a basket of fresh Georgia wild shrimp, mashed potatoes, and a trip to the salad bar. The shrimp were plentiful, tender, coconut breaded, and very satisfying. When I was finished I was surprised by the bill. The shrimp were undeniably worth the price but the extra sides were not. I left content, with a full belly, and another of Darien’s must visits checked off the list.
I returned to the house and Martha was there. I told her about the tour, my trip to Ashantilly, and lunch at B&J’s. She was interested in Ashantilly and asked if I was able to get inside. I told her unfortunately it was closed so she started to call around to see if she could get me in. I told her it was ok but she insisted that I see the inside of the home. With just a few calls, she reached a woman named Harriet who was the head of the organization that maintained the house. She agreed to meet me there in forty-five minutes. I was grateful to have Martha as a connection and after chatting a little more I went back to the beautiful home.
When I arrived Harriet was already there and she greeted me as I got out of the van. She was very friendly and while I thought I might just get a look at the house it turned out that Harriet was prepared to give a full tour. She walked me through home explaining how it was once the Spalding’s but that the organization which maintained it was really trying to celebrate the Haynes family who were the last to own it. They were especially interested in Bill Hayne who was a very important part of the town’s more recent past. She told me how under Haynes ownership it caught fire destroying the entire interior except some tabby walls, (tabby is a form of cement once used in the region composed of broken oyster shells, lime, sand, ash and water) which she showed me were still intact. The family had wanted to sell, but Bill came back and took on the project of restoring it to the original specs. Today, the inside is decorated with many of the furniture pieces, books, paintings, and other things the preservation society could find in the house after Bill passed. She also showed me old archives of Bill’s work, photos of the house before the fire, and other odds and ends they discovered as they were going through the family remains.
The feature Harriet was most proud of was Bill’s work in printing which he dedicated his life to. She took me to Bill’s printing workshop to show me some of the old machines and type that Bill used, explaining how the home’s preservation society hoped to utilize the shop in the future. I was with her for well over an hour, and once outside we continued talking until the bugs started driving me crazy. I thanked her and returned to the house for the night.
The following day it was just around noon when I finally left the house. The plan was to get a couple of photos from town and then walk to the King George Fort. I got the photos but noticed my camera was dying. I went back to recharge it and realizing the fort was two miles away decided to drive. I was impressed by the location, which had a large replica of the original fort with a small but interesting museum in the visitor center. It told the history of the Scottish Highlanders who settled the town and their conflicts with the Spanish who were settled nearby in St. Augustine. Darien’s history was also laid out and for only seven dollars, I thought it was worth it.
After the museum I stopped at Skippers again for some fresh Georgia shrimp knowing I should get it while I could, and then walked over to Tony’s house. When I arrived I found Calvin outside painting the new music studio Tony was building in the backyard. He said the two of them had just left. I struck up a conversation and Calvin mentioned he was fifty-five but I wouldn’t have guessed he was more than forty. I told him a little about what I was doing and we chatted about what it was like to live in Darian. He explained that as a black man he felt like he was living in a police state and I got the sense he was very unhappy there. On the outside he was all smiles but his face and mannerisms showed a deeper pain that couldn’t be disguised. Tony mentioned he was an addict of some sort and I understood why he might look to find escape in his drug of choice. We didn’t chat long and I told him to let Tony know I stopped by. I left wondering how many people there were like Calvin in Darien, those downtrodden and feeling trapped.
Without much more on my agenda, I stopped at the BI-LO to grab beer and something to cook. When I got back to the house I texted Dwight about meeting next day. I spent a little time on the porch and saw Maryam walking her dog with her daughter. I chatted bit with them. I also did some writing and made dinner. I had still planned to return to Tony’s but by the time he got back home I was too lazy and instead just called it an early night.
The next morning I woke hoping I was going to be able to secure some interviews for my last full day in Darien. I still had not been in contact with Dwight about setting up a time to talk and was a little nervous. While I sat writing and sipping on coffee I got a call from Martha. She had been trying to set up an interview with a gentleman named Griffin Lotson and had arranged for us to meet at three that afternoon. I thanked her and told her I would be there.
With time to kill I left the house and roamed the town until I ended up in The Old Jail Art Center and Museum. As guessed it was located in the old jail that had been kept intact. From what I learned the gallery was able to get government funding since it was also preserved and used as a historical museum. Throughout the two-story building the walls were lined with art for sale but there were also artifacts, historical photos, and information on Darian and McIntosh County’s past. It was unique and I couldn’t remember being in a location that mixed art and history so fluidly. I found the museum to be very informative, giving me an even better perspective on the little town and its inhabitants.
On the way home I stopped into Turnip Green’s looking to get some produce for a meal I wanted to make Martha before leaving town. I had a nice conversation with the very amiable owner and was able get some of what I was looking for. Back at the house I finally connected with Dwight and we agreed to meet at his house later in the afternoon. It seemed everything was going to work as planned and I prepped myself to meet with Griffin for the first interview.
At three I walked across the street to wait outside Martha’s place and the two of them arrived a little later. Then we all took seats around a table in her backyard to talk. Martha sat in on the interview, which I didn’t mind. My first impression was that Griffin was a sharp dresser and clearly a man of God. His energy was amazing and he was happy to talk with me. He shared what it was like for him to grow up in the segregated South, “navigating the system” as he called it. He shared a bit about being in Macintosh country during the reign of Sheriff Tom Poppell explaining, “he was a dictator” but that “he did not have to be a Gaddafi” because “people revered him” but at the same time “he was a true Boss Hog”. I also learned how Griffin moved to Washington DC at nineteen because him mom so passionately implored him to. There he got into government first as a janitor working so hard that within six months he began moving up, eventually getting into law enforcement and has since worked directly with the Bush and Obama administrations for community projects in the region.
One of the more interesting things he told me about was how he was working with the Library of Congress on the origins of the song Kumbaya. Griffin grew up in the Gullah Geechee culture, speaking the language which is a creole developed out of a mix of English and African languages spoken by the slaves brought to work plantations. The Gullah Geechee culture and language survived in the region on islands like Sapelo and other isolated areas because of segregation in the South. Griffin explained that there was an original recording of the song Kumbaya that was in the Library of Congress and because of his ties to the culture, he was able to obtain and listen to the recording. Until then they didn’t know exactly who was singing, the location, or date. The first time he listened he heard clear as day that the guy at the end of the song says his name, Henry Wally from Darian, Georgia, April of 1926. He explained that Henry was singing come by ya my lord, come by ya being a common saying in Gullah Geechee. As he explained this to me I could tell it was something very important and exciting for him and I felt very lucky I got to share in his excitement. Finally, we finished and I thanked them both but mentioned I had to leave quickly because I was supposed to be at Dwight’s very soon. Griffin thanked me and told me he really enjoyed the conversation, this made me feel great considering he probably had been interviewed many times. I left on a high, ready for another interview.
I rushed to Dwight’s house and just made it for our 4:30 meeting. He and Freddy were outside in the yard and when I tried to park on the road they waved me into the yard making fun of me for trying to park so far out. I liked that they were so comfortable with me already and it helped me relax. We stepped into Dwight’s beautiful home and took a seat in the living room. Though the two of them have been friends since the seventh grade, their upbringings were quite different. Dwight was more formally educated, very well spoken, and explained that many of his ancestors were educators. He had left Darien for some years, first having gone to college at Savannah State in 1961 where he got a degree in engineering. He was then drafted into the army during the Vietnam War and after moved to Atlanta, living there until 2006 and working around the region in the field he studied.
Freddy grew up and lived his whole life in McIntosh County, mostly outside of Darien having only been in town for a little less than a decade. There was no doubt his upbringing was more isolated as he told stories about what it was like coming into Darian as a kid and how exciting it was. He spoke with what I guessed was a Gullah Geechee accent that was representative of this isolation. He told me of how growing up in the country he learned shouting, a practice from slavery days passed down, mostly in church, that has now become a popular tourist attraction. Although he had been doing it his whole life, in 1985 he became part of a Shouters group that has performed all over the country, even at the Smithsonian.
Although very different, Freddy and Dwight played off of each other as they told me about Darian’s past, the industry once there, and how segregation played such a part of life then. One of my favorite stories was about the importance of the sugar cane harvest back then. They both joked and laughed about that it was the one time of the year they could stay up all night to make sure the harvest was completed. How it was a community event, and how they would get to drink the cane juice, which fermented at times and gave them a nice little buzz. I felt as if I was reminiscing with old friends and found myself laughing more than most other interviews I had done previously.
The subject turned to Tom Poppell and Dwight in particular had an interesting view on what it was like living during that period. He explained how Poppell “actually looked out for…the black population [that] had nobody to look out for them…realizing he would get their vote and he would eventually end up with their land”. Yet Dwight’s father grew with Sheriff Poppell and because of that he never feared getting in trouble telling me, “I started driving at ten years old, didn’t worry about police or anything”. One of the best stories was how Dwight’s mother once got in an accident with an out of towner from the Northeast that was totally her fault. It was right in front of one of Poppell’s men who then went over to the scene and sent Dwight’s mother on her way. When the “yankee” protested, the officer told him he could go on his way or pay for both vehicles. In those days it was all about who you knew despite color.
We talked for over an hour and the time seemed to fly by. We ended the conversation and I thanked them for taking the time to sit with me, also letting them know how much of a pleasure it was. Freddy needed a ride home and I offered to take him. I cleared off the seat and he jumped in Bessie. We chatted a bit on the way to his house before I dropped him off. I stopped to pick up some things from the Bi-Lo and returned home to cook dinner for Martha.
I wanted to do something to thank her for everything she had done for me. From letting me stay at the home to hooking me up with Griffin, Tony, Susan, and getting me into the Ashantilly house, the least I could do was offer to make dinner. I made up some spaghetti with garlic bread and although it wasn’t anything special I could tell she appreciated it. We sat and chatted for our last time of the trip and I thought how I was going to miss her. Although I didn’t know what to think when I first met her, by that last meal I knew she had a beautiful heart and I hoped that she would be able to get past all the troubles she seemed to be caught up in at the moment. After dinner she left for home and I stayed up a bit longer before calling it a night.
The next morning before leaving I got in touch with Noah and we agreed to meet for coffee. Neither of us had much time. We met outside Zio Carlo Café and the first thing I brought up was how much I learned about his great grandpa. I could tell it was sensitive subject and he reminded me that he didn’t know or care much for that part of the family. I instantly felt bad for bringing it up as if he hadn’t heard it a million times. I changed the subject and we didn’t talk long. I thanked him again for everything and wished him luck with his clothing line. I went back to the Bi-Lo one last time to get some big bags of dog and cat food for Martha. Between Claire-bear and the stray cats she was feeding, I thought it might help her and I didn’t want to insult her by trying to leave money. I saw her before leaving town and said goodbye, again thanking her for everything.
Leaving town I headed north through McIntosh County toward Savannah. As I left I thought about all I had experienced during my time in Darien. It seemed like ages ago that I had been at the campground freezing and it said a lot about my stay. I wondered if I would ever meet someone so open and giving as Martha. If anyone would just offer a house to me after knowing me less than five minutes. Exiting the county I couldn’t help but smile to myself, thinking how for so long I carried in my head an image, idea, notion of the South, and in so many ways Darien fit it. I also dwelled on how crazy Darien’s story was, from its founding by Scottish Highlanders, its dark slave past, and total destruction at the hands of the Union, to the history of Sheriff Poppell, and how that period was such a cliché for the crooked Deep South. Like every town I had done before and I assumed would come after, Darien was unique, but I knew it was a place and visit I would never forget.