Exploring The Parks: Jimmy Carter National Historic Site

Plains HS principal officePlains downtown

The principal's office in Plains High School has been recreated to its look in the 1930s. Below, a row of shops in historic downtown Plains shops. Photographs by Danny Bernstein.

George Washington had Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson had Monticello, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt had Hyde Park.

But to me, no other town in the United States is as tied to a president as Plains, Georgia. President Jimmy Carter was born and raised in Plains, worked most of his life in Plains, and returned there after his presidency. He and Mrs. Rosalynn Carter are still here today as an active, visible presence in the community.

The Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, established in 1987, tells the story of our 39th president's humble rural beginnings and his life during and after his presidency.

Plains High School

Start your visit at the visitor center in the old Plains High School.

When President Carter attended school, it was the only school in town. He went to the Plains school from the first to eleventh grade. Georgia didn’t have a 12th grade at the time.

A 28-minute film narrated by fellow Southerner Charles Kuralt introduces the historic site. Many friends and relatives reminisce about President Carter’s life in Plains and his presidential campaign. The principal’s office has been recreated and five other rooms have exhibits. Reproductions of the president's paintings hang in the hallway.

Miss Julia Coleman was a cherished teacher in Plains. Her classroom was restored to 1937 when she was Jimmy Carter’s 7th grade teacher. She encouraged all her students to learn about the world beyond Plains and opened their horizons. President Carter’s dream was to attend the Naval Academy and he succeeded. In 1946, he graduated from the Academy and married Rosalynn Smith. He became a naval officer and looked forward to a bright future in the military.

However, when his father died in 1953, President Carter decided to return to Plains to take over the family peanut business. Rosalynn Carter was not happy. By her own admission, she pouted for a year. She thought her life was over and that they would never travel again. They became full partners when she took over the financial side of the business.

President Carter started working his way up the political ladder, first on the Sumter County School Board, then state representative and governor. He championed racial integration when it was still an unpopular position to take.

An exhibit lists his accomplishments as president. He’s probably best remembered for the Camp David Accord that brought peace between Egypt and Israel. An environmentalist would laud him for the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which protected over 100 million acres of federal land, including increasing the size of Denali National Park. An educator would note that President Carter created the Education Department in 1979.

To my Taiwanese daughter-in-law, President Carter will always be remembered as the president who dropped recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign country when he established diplomatic relations with China.

No other former president has been as active after leaving the White House as President Carter. In 1982 he created the Carter Center, which is best known for sending out election observation teams to countries that request them. The Center also works on preventing and resolving conflict around the world and tackling preventable diseases.

The president's work hasn't gone unnoticed. In 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development."

No doubt his own life growing up in Plains impacted his future goals in life. In segregated Georgia, Plains High School served white students only. Eventually a school for Blacks opened up in the area. Plains High School was integrated in 1966 and closed in 1979 when Georgia went to a county school system. Students now ride the bus to Americus, the large city ten miles down the road.

Current House

The Carters still live in the house they built in 1961. Though they have donated the house and 2.4 acres to the park site, you can’t visit their home while they still live in it. According to park rangers, it will take at least five years for the house to open to the public after it becomes vacant. The Park Service will have to inventory all the household effects, and let the family take the ones that they have inherited. They’ll need to work out how they’re going to accommodate the public to protect the house and add parking and bathrooms.

Plains Train Depot

The train depot sits across the street from the row of tourist shops. It served as the presidential campaign headquarters because, as a plaque explains, it was the only building in town with a public bathroom.

The exhibits depict his campaign for president. He introduced himself to voters with “Hello. I’m Jimmy Carter and I’m running for president.”

The townspeople volunteered to work on his campaign. His family pitched in, and it certainly helped because he had a big family. As Mrs. Carter said, “Once we got married, we were kin to everyone in town.”

The depot was the symbol of small town America. At a $5,000 a plate dinner, Plains volunteers cooked the food. Jimmy Carter won the presidential election “one handshake at a time.”

Jimmy Carter’s Boyhood Farmhouse

About three miles out of town, you can visit Jimmy Carter’s boyhood home in the community of Archery. The farm has 17 acres where the Park Service now grows peanuts, sugar cane, and corn. A huge vegetable garden is similar to what was planted in the 1930s. The farm also keeps chickens for eggs.

The farmhouse has been restored back to its appearance in 1937, a year before the Carters put in electricity. As one of the interpretive rangers explains, “not putting electricity in the house is saving the Park Service a lot of money.”

The family got running water in 1935 when they installed a windmill purchased from a catalog for $100. But the kitchen didn’t have running water.

“Why put running water in the kitchen when the pump was right outside?” Jimmy Carter’s father, Earl Carter, thought. "It's a waste of money."

The bathroom had a bucket for a showerhead, which dripped only cold water. Still, it was such an improvement in lifestyle. Moving to an indoor bathroom was a big event.

The farm hired help and paid cash wages; Earl Carter didn’t believe in sharecropping. The farm had a commissary, a store for people who worked on his land and around the area. The recreated store displays cans, slabs of meat hanging from a hook, and sewing notions—necessities for tenant farmers who might have a difficult time getting to town. The store operated mostly on credit. The store was open all day on Saturday and on request during the week.

Jack and Rachel Clark’s tenant house still stands. Jack managed much of the farm. Their house is much more modest than the Carters'. It has a kitchen/dining room with a stove and one bedroom with a corn-filled mattress and newspaper on the wall for insulation. You can also see the blacksmith shop, barns, and other outbuildings on the farm.

Working train tracks run behind their house. The family was used to the train noise. However, girls who were invited to an overnight by the Carter sisters panicked when a train passed by in the middle of the night because it sounded like the train was going to hit their bedroom.

President Carter still brings groups and guests to show them his old boyhood home--yes, with the Secret Service tagging along. He also comes around to pick up some vegetables and eggs.

Plains Today

Plains is so intertwined with President Carter that visitors should spend some time in town. Go into the antique shops, buy a peanut butter ice cream cone, and talk to the residents.

The Plains Historic Inn, set over an antique mall, is the place to stay when you’re visiting the historic site. Seven rooms are named for seven decades—1920 to 1980. The 1970 room is the Presidential suite. Each room is furnished in the style of its time and they’re all huge. President Carter helped to put up the walls and Mrs. Carter picked out the period furniture. The inn, opened in 2002, is owned by the Plains Better Hometown Program.

If you want to hear President Carter preach Sunday school, check out the Maranatha Baptist Church website for his schedule. If his schedule permits, you'll be able to have a picture taken with President Carter. It's part of the visit and the fun of Plains, Georgia.