The little town that built a president

For some the idyllic Southern childhood was a front porch and the smell of Sunday dinner from the stove. By those standards the 39th president of the United States had that charmed childhood. The Jimmy Carter National Historic Park has preserved Carter’s story from his life growing up on a farm just outside of downtown Plains, Ga. to his rise to the White House. You don’t have to love politics or history to fall in love with the story of our oldest living president.

The Depot in Plains, Ga. is where Carter’s campaign for president began in 1975.

Jimmy Carter’s Boyhood Home

The Carter family moved into the white frame house on Old Plains Highway in 1928 when Jimmy Carter was four years old. The Carter family lived there until 1949. The house and 17 acres were purchased in 1994 by the National Park Service, which restored the home to resemble how it looked in the 1930s, before electricity was available in the area.

Carter’s boyhood home

Visitors enter through the back of the property and encounter chickens and goats. Oh, and there’s an outhouse, too– I don’t think it’s operational. You go around the property to a welcoming front porch with two white rockers and a porch swing.

The welcoming front porch of Carter’s boyhood home.

The living room has an old piano and a fireplace. Walking down the long hallway you will see beds neatly made, including one designated as the room of the future president. In Jimmy’s room you will see a small bookcase. His mother, Lillian, encouraged her children to read.

Jimmy’s Carter’s childhood bedroom has a bookshelf. Carter’s mother, Lillian, instilled a love for reading in all of her children.

The dining room table off to the kitchen is set with replicas of Southern favorites–ham, fried chicken, deviled eggs and sweet tea. And like many Southern spreads, the table is so full a separate table was set aside just for desserts like pecan pie.

This table has all of the elements of a classic Sunday dinner–fried chicken, bread, deviled eggs and ham. Desserts are located on a separate table.

But the house also reflects some of the hardships of life before electricity and washing machines made everyday tasks easier. Old fashioned washboards are found at the back of the home. A well where water was drawn is just a few feet from the porch.

Old-fashioned washboards located on the back porch of Jimmy Carter’s boyhood home.

A short walk from the house is a windmill. You will also find a stable, corn grinder and other items that show what farm living was like in the 1930s.

Windmills like this one were once a common site across Georgia.

Plains High School

The National Park Service turned the former Plains High School into a museum that chronicles the Carters’ lives. Jimmy and Rosalyn both attended the school and graduated three years apart.

A portrait of the Carters hangs at the museum.

Not only does the school tell the Carters’ story, it takes you on a journey through time, beginning with a “classroom” much like the one the Carters would have attended as elementary school children. Rosalyn was “at the top of our class,” making all “A’s” and graduating as valedictorian in 1944. It was in this school in Plains, Ga. that Mrs. Carter first dreamed of traveling the world.

The museum features a classroom much like one from the Carter’s years in elementary school.

Have you ever wondered what it is like to sit behind the President’s desk? The museum also includes a model of the Oval Office.

This is probably as close as I will ever get to sitting in the Oval Office.

A large portion of the museum is dedicated to the work the Carters did after they left the White House. In 2002, Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Downtown Plains-Where It All Began

Jimmy Carter didn’t announce his presidential campaign from a fancy ballroom in a big-city hotel. He chose to announce it from the depot in downtown Plains. The depot has been renovated by the National Park Service. Included is memorabilia with slogans well known during the Carter campaign–”The Grin Will Win” and “Welcome to Carter Country.”

One of the unique pieces of campaign memorabilia found at the Plains depot.

A 70’s era television set plays some of the highlights of Carter’s campaign.

You can’t leave plans without spending some time in the downtown area where Carter grew up and still frequents today. A welcome banner is above the old Carter Peanut Warehouse where Carter’s father, Earl, ran several businesses. And you can’t visit Plains without tasting some of its famous crop. You’ll find plenty of peanut-inspired snacks and souvenirs in Plain Peanuts. You have to get a peanut butter ice cream cone and taste some of the fudge.

If you’ve never had peanut butter ice cream, you don’t know what you are missing.

And before you leave the store, make sure you have your picture made at the “I Went Nuts in Plains Georgia” sign. Not only did I go nuts, I got a tote bag to prove it.

Some will say I was already nuts before I went to Plains.

The Plains Historic Inn and Antique Mall is in a 100-year-old building that was previously used as a furniture store, funeral home and mercantile company. The mall features the usual vintage items you see in most antique stores. But look closely for some unique items you won’t find anywhere else. Some of it is campaign memorabilia. But you will find some pretty cool items like this one–the Happy Mouth Bottle Opener.

I kind of regret not buying this.

The Carters have added some personal touches to the rooms at the inn, according to its website. We plan on staying there if we return to the area. Check out the unique rooms on the inn’s website.

Carter’s brother, Billy, became a public figure himself during Carter’s campaign and his presidency. He promoted “Billy Beer” and tried to jumpstart a political career of his own with an unsuccessful run for Plains mayor. The gas station that Billy owned for much of the 70’s has been turned into a museum and is across the tracks from downtown.

Younger folks may wonder, “Where do you put your credit card?” Not only is there no place for a credit card, but in the 70’s you didn’t pump your own gas!

If you get hungry, the Buffalo Cafe is right in the middle of downtown in an old bank building. The restaurant serves sandwiches, salads and other items but we were told to try their hamburgers. We understood why at first bite. The meat was so fresh and the condiments were perfectly added. We added a side of potato tots, or “tater” tots as we say in the South.

We visited Plains during the week and the streets were empty. We were told that’s not the case on weekends.

Want to know more about Jimmy Carter?

The Jimmy Carter Presidental Library and Museum is located in Atlanta, about three hours north of Plains. The library is home to some of the records accumulated during Carter’s presidency. The Carter Center, the former president’s non-profit human rights organization, is also located on the site.

The Carter Presidential Library and Museum is another place to learn more about the former president.

Final thoughts

We were looking forward to visiting the Plains Trading Post but it was closed. All of the sites in Plains are free to visit. The Historic SAM Shortline Railroad stops at the Plains Depot on weekends.

We visited through the week and found plenty of parking. Plains is just a short drive from the Sumter County seat, Americus. The Windsor Hotel in the city’s downtown is another historical place to stay during your visit. Several celebrities and dignitaries have stayed at the hotel. The hotel named the Carter Presidental Suite after the former first couple.

One last piece of advice–we went to Plains in July and it was hot. If you are averse to heat, you may want to visit in the fall, winter or spring.

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