By Shuan Butcher
Recently, I had Georgia on my mind. Not the Ray Charles version, but the Jimmy Carter one. And a trip to two Georgia towns helped me learn more about our 39th President and rural life in the South.
Carter grew up in the small, rural southern town of Plains, Ga. He attended school there and met his wife, Rosalynn, there. After graduating from the local high school, he would go on to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and then serve on one of the first atomic submarines.
Carter resigned from his Navy career when his father, Earl, died, returning to Plains to manage the family farm and farm supply business. Carter’s Warehouse sold certified seed peanuts, and provided custom peanut shelling, and peanut storing, and also supplied liquid nitrogen, bulk fertilizer, lime and much more to the region’s farms. Farming the Georgian land had been a Carter family tradition dating back to before the Civil War.
It was in Plains that Jimmy started his political career, serving on the local school board, and in the state senate. Later he was elected governor, and in 1976, he became the President of the United States. After spending four years in the White House, there was no doubt where the Carters would return. Never has a town been so synonymous with a President. In fact, Jimmy and Rosalynn still live there today.
I have visited a number of presidential sites, but it was truly a unique experience to visit Plains. You can tell the town embraces the Carters, their most famous residents. Residents know the couple, respect them, and love them dearly. As I drove around, I loved seeing signs reminiscent of campaign boards, reading “Jimmy Carter for Cancer Survivor.”
The town also clearly benefits from the tourism that our nation’s 39th President brings. Visiting all of these sites will at least take you a few days, if not longer. The Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, designated by Congress in 1987, consists of his boyhood farm and home, high school and a railroad depot. These places are administered by the National Park Service, which is celebrating its centennial this year.
Start your tour at Plains High School. The school opened in 1921 and served students until 1979. Two of them were Jimmy and Rosalynn (she was valedictorian of the Class of 1944). Today, it is the park visitor center and museum. While visiting, you will learn about the Carters’ early education, their courtship, early married life and the political campaigns.
Next, visit Jimmy Carter’s boyhood home. His father and mother, Earl and Lillian, owned this farm from 1928 to 1949. Jimmy himself lived here for 13 years, helping his father in the blacksmith shop and commissary, feeding the animals and working the fields. At the time, it was a 360-acre farm where the Carters raised cotton, peanuts and corn to sell as well as other vegetables and livestock for their own use.
In addition to the home, make sure to check out the commissary, blacksmith shop and tenant houses. Throughout the property, there are stations where you can hear first-hand accounts of growing up on the farm, narrated by the President himself. Although a National Park Service site now, it is an active working farm with chickens, goats, vegetables and, of course, peanuts!
Afterward, stop by the Plains Depot. This train station was completed in the 1880s and was restored to the 1976 appearance as Carter’s campaign headquarters. In January 1977, the 18-car “Peanut Special” train departed from the station destined for his inauguration in Washington. The site serves as a self-guided museum, which details his grassroots campaign.
Across the street from the railroad depot sits Billy Carter’s Service Station. Billy was Jimmy’s younger brother who owned and operated this gas station from 1972 to 1981. During its heyday, it was a popular place for visitors and members of the news media. Do you remember “Billy Beer” (at least from the Simpson’s episode)? There is some great Billy Beer paraphernalia on display at this museum.
Also in the same vicinity is the town’s central business district. Not much more than the equivalent of a city block, it hasn’t changed much since Carter’s youth. But there are some unique shops to explore and just about every one of them promotes their connection to Carter, peanuts or both. There is an antique shop or two, a gift shop and a store that describes itself as “The South’s Largest Political Memorabilia Dealer.”
One of my favorites is Bobby Salter’s Plain Peanuts & General Store. In 1987, this business started in Billy Carter’s Service Station but outgrew that space and, in 1992, opened across the street in the building that was the warehouse where President Carter’s father started the family peanut business. They make a variety of peanut candies, including flavored brittles, and offer fried peanuts and other styles. Bobby Salter’s is home of the “Famous Peanut Butter Ice Cream,” which is definitely worth trying.
My last official Carter stop in Plains was Maranatha Baptist Church. The Carters have been members of since 1981, shortly after returning to their hometown. The President is an active member of the church as a deacon and Sunday School teacher. He also made some of the furniture and the collection plates that you will see inside.
Whether you are a fan of the Carters, of politics, of history, or just of quaint rural Southern culture, Plains is worth a visit. I happened to like it all and I was amazed that within a matter of a few miles, you truly get a sense of the man, the family and the President. What is even cooler is that you can actually drive by the Carters’ property, where in 1960, they built the only home they have ever owned. There are other Carter-related sites to check out if you have more time, such as the family cemetery, Plains United Methodist Church (where the Carters were wed in 1946), Public Housing Unit 9-A (where the Carters first lived after his military service), Plains Baptist Church (where Carter attended while growing up), and the Lillian G. Carter Nursing Center (formerly a small hospital where Carter was born).
While in Plains, it is also worth driving around and checking out the peanut farms. Although the Carters have long been out of the peanut business, it is still a major part of economy in Plains. There are still two peanut processing centers in the town of approximately 700 people.
A Jimmy Carter’s Georgia experience wouldn’t be complete without a brief stop in Atlanta, to see the Carter Presidential Center. At the official presidential library and museums, visitors explore the Carter White House years as well as his life before and after his one term. Look for the actual Nobel Peace Prize that he was awarded in 2002 for “his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts.” Or look for one of the two Grammy Awards he has received. The highlight for me was the replica Oval Office.
While in Atlanta, you can also stop by the Georgia State Capitol, which pays homage to the former President, who also served as the state’s governor. Completed in 1889, the capitol building has a classical design featuring an Indiana limestone exterior with Georgia marble interior. The dome on top is gold-leafed with a bronze female statue representing freedom. Carter’s official governor’s portrait lines the wall on the main floor, and a statue outside honors his presidency.