With the hometown of a former president in Plains and the headquarters of Habitat for Humanity Inc. in Americus, this region emphasizes “home.”
By Linda Lee Walden, F245876
It is a place without hustle and bustle, where we can amble among neighbors who remember our fathers, love our mothers, and who would have been just as friendly to us if we had never done anything other than grow peanuts for a living.
— Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter from Everything To Gain: Making The Most Of The Rest Of Your Life.
That’s how the 39th president of the United States and his wife described their hometown of Plains and surrounding Sumter County, Georgia. Never has another “first couple” been so defined by a birthplace as Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. They grew up and graduated from high school in Plains. When he served in the Georgia state senate and as Georgia’s governor, they returned to their modest ranch-style home for renewal and relaxation. And after Jimmy’s unsuccessful bid for a second term as president, they moved back to that same home in Plains.
Perhaps that’s what makes a visit to this rural southwestern Georgia town of less than 700 so charming. Plains is not just a National Historic Site commemorating the life and political career of a former president; it’s also a slice of living history. The Carters spend much of their time here when not away on business, and they maintain a low-key but active part in the community.
The Jimmy Carter National Historic Site and Preservation District in Plains welcomes visitors to follow the saga of Jimmy Carter’s life, beginning with his boyhood in the 1930s and continuing through his political campaigns of the 1960s and ’70s. Carter’s current work with Habitat for Humanity International Inc., which is headquartered in nearby Americus, and his efforts at the Carter Center in Atlanta also are highlighted.
The historic site encompasses three separate locations that are open to the public daily (except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day) and offer free admission: the Plains High School Museum and Visitors Center; Carter’s Boyhood Farm; and the Plains Depot, his campaign headquarters. From Interstate 75, Plains is approximately 40 miles west via State Route 27 (exit 112) or U.S. 280 (exit 101). It’s approximately 50 miles southwest of Perry, where FMCA’s “Southern Sensation” convention will take place this month.
Pick up a tour map at the Georgia visitors center just east of Plains, and then make your first stop at the former Plains High School. Both James Earl Carter Jr. and Rosalynn Smith completed grammar school and high school in this building, which closed in 1979. The building was renovated by the National Park Service and reopened in 1996 as the historic site’s visitors center and museum, featuring exhibits about Carter’s life and career.
If you can manage it, bend your body into the same stiff wooden school desks used in the 1940s and listen to Carter’s admiring voice as he talks about “Miss Julia” (Coleman), the teacher and principal who was a guiding force in his young life. In the restored auditorium, watch a video narrated by Charles Kurault chronicling Carter’s rise to national prominence. Or, relax and join Jimmy and Rosalynn on a big-screen TV tour of their Woodland Drive home — the only house they’ve ever owned.
The museum and visitors center is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily and includes a bookstore and gift shop.
After you finish browsing, return to your vehicle and head west on route 27/280 past the Carters’ well-protected private residence, and turn left at the sign directing you to Jimmy Carter’s boyhood home and farm in the roadside community of Archery. The farm is located approximately 2-½ miles from the high school.
Opened in November 2000, the newly restored farmstead takes you back to middle-class life in the Depression-era South. Jimmy’s parents, Earl and Lillian Carter, moved their four children to the solid, one-story home on several hundred acres of farmland in 1928 when Jimmy was 4 years old. The house had no electricity for another 10 years. In Everything To Gain, Jimmy recalled, “It was a big day when a flush toilet replaced the outdoor privy.”
Visitors can stroll past the barn, blacksmith shed, sharecropper’s cabin, and commissary, where farm workers came to buy supplies. At various points along the self-guided tour, you can press audio station buttons to hear a recording of Jimmy Carter reminisce about growing up on the farm. The boyhood home and farm is open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. daily.
Back on Main Street in Plains, you’ll find the wooden railroad depot that served as headquarters for Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign — a fitting site for the grassroots effort that sent a hometown boy to the White House. Campaign photos and memorabilia from each of Jimmy Carter’s political races line the rough-hewn interior walls of the station. From the tracks outside, the famous “Peanut Special” departed for Washington, D.C., overflowing with local supporters bound for Carter’s inauguration. The depot is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.
In addition to the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, most of the town of Plains is included in the preservation district. From the depot, cross Main Street to the block-long historic business district. Constructed in the 1890s, this row of brick commercial buildings has changed little since the 1930s; it’s easy to picture 10-year-old Jimmy selling boiled peanuts on the corner. The block now houses tourist-oriented businesses, including souvenir stores and a bakery and cafe. In September the sleepy town comes alive for the annual Peanut Festival, attended by crowds of visitors from several states.
The preservation district also encompasses the gas station once owned by Jimmy’s brother, Billy, as well as the Golden Peanut Company, where the Carter family’s farm supply business was located.
At the nearby Lebanon Cemetery, several members of the Carter family are buried. Also nearby is the Lillian G. Carter Nursing Center, formerly a hospital where “Miss Lillian” worked as a registered nurse. Jimmy was born there on October 1, 1924.
When the Carters are in town, Jimmy teaches Sunday school at the Maranatha Baptist Church just north of Plains. Visitors are welcome to attend the class and church service and have their picture snapped afterward with Jimmy and Rosalynn. To learn about Carter’s upcoming Sunday school teaching schedule, phone the church at (229) 824-7896 or the National Historic Site at (229) 824-4104; or, visit www.plainsgeorgia.com and click on the Web page’s “Sunday School” button. The schedule is provided several weeks in advance, but to be certain it has not changed, check again by phoning the church or historic site just prior to your visit.
Since the Carters returned to Plains in 1981, the presidential influence on Sumter County has spread to the neighboring town of Americus, thanks to the Carters’ ongoing support of Habitat for Humanity International. The organization is based in Americus, approximately 10 miles east of Plains.
Jimmy Carter did not found Habitat for Humanity, but he became a spokesperson and volunteer for the organization in the mid-1980s and has been instrumental in spreading the message of this nonprofit, Christian-based homebuilder around the globe. Up to 60,000 travelers each year visit Plains, and many combine their trip with a tour of Habitat’s headquarters in Americus.
Habitat volunteers now build homes for low-income families in more than 80 countries. However, the idea for the group originated in Sumter County. Habitat headquarters, which includes worldwide support operations, is a prominent attraction in Americus, an antebellum town of 18,000.
The best way to experience the Habitat for Humanity headquarters is to take the free tour that is offered several times each weekday. By prior arrangement, you can park your motorhome overnight (if room permits) at the five-space RV park that the group maintains for a nightly fee. From there, it’s a one-block walk to the tour center, where a short video details the origins of Habitat for Humanity. Afterward, your volunteer guide will transport you by van to the various Habitat sites on the tour, which lasts approximately two hours.
The first stop is the Rylander headquarters building in Americus’ historic downtown. The lobby features an atrium with a three-story view of mock house facades, symbolizing the group’s goal: a world without shacks. Displayed there along with other memorabilia is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, awarded in 1996 to Habitat for Humanity founder and president Millard Fuller.
Your group tour next visits the first Habitat house ever built, as well as an entire subdivision that was recently completed. On your way, you’ll pass numerous restored Victorian mansions and plantation-era homes. Habitat for Humanity volunteers from around the world live in some of these homes.
The tour concludes with a stroll through the International Village, a display of homes constructed using the styles and materials common in other countries, such as Kenya, Papua New Guinea, India, and Guatemala.
If you like, you can take a separate van tour from the Habitat headquarters to Koinonia (pronounced Koy-no-Nee-ah) Partners Farm on the outskirts of Americus. Founded in the 1940s, this cooperative interracial farm was the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity. Still in operation, the farm produces and sells homegrown pecan and chocolate products. A small campground at the farm can accommodate a limited number of RVs. For more information, phone the farm at (229) 924-0391 and ask for Ellie Castle.
A train passenger’s view of Sumter County may also be experienced beginning sometime this summer. The Southwest Georgia Excursion Train will depart daily from Cordele, just east across the county line in neighboring Crisp County. Passing cotton fields, pecan groves, and stands of Georgia pine, the vintage 1940s train will wind its way to Archery, terminating near Carter’s boyhood farm. Passengers can disembark at one of four stops, including Americus and Plains, and re-board for the return trip.
At the time this was written, no startup date for the new train was yet available. For more updated information, phone Georgia Veterans Memorial State Park at (229) 276-2371 or visit www.samshortline.com.
Sumter County, Georgia, is a place to experience history — from pre-Civil War days to the making of a modern U.S. president — as well as to contemplate the future of the New South.
Jimmy Carter National Historic Site
300 N. Bond St.
Plains, GA 31780-5562
Motorhome parking is available at the Georgia Visitor Center east of Plains and at all three public venues of the historic site.
Habitat for Humanity International
Tour Center and Museum
419 W. Church St.
Americus, GA 31709
(229) 924-6935, ext. 2153
Tours are available Monday through Friday at 8:00 a.m., 10:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., and 3:00 p.m. Weekend tours are by appointment only.
Andersonville City Campground
114 Church St.
Andersonville, GA 31711
Plantation Campground & RV Park
Brickyard Plantation Golf Club
1619 U.S. 280 E.
Americus, GA 31709
120 State Route 45 N.
Plains, GA 31780
(229) 824-5775 or 824-7735
Georgia Veterans Memorial State Park
2459-A U.S. 280 W.
Cordele, GA 31015
(800) 864-7275 for reservations up to 48 hours in advance
(229) 276-2371 for checking availability less than 48 hours in advance
Georgia Fun Facts
- British settlers named the colony Georgia in honor of King George II of England.
- The first major gold rush in the United States took place in Dahlonega, Georgia, in 1829. A total of $212,546 in gold was taken from mines in Lumpkin County alone.
- The Atlanta Metro area ranks as the 10th largest in the country by population.
- The Vidalia onion can be grown only in the fields in Vidalia and Glennville, Georgia.
- The Appalachian Trail terminus in Georgia attracts hikers from around the world.
- Georgia’s highest peak is Brasstown Bald, at 4,784 feet. Its highest waterfall is Amicalola Falls, which plunges 729 feet.
- The official state song is “Georgia On My Mind.” It was made famous by Ray Charles, who hails from Albany, Georgia.
- The University of Georgia was founded in 1785, making it the first state university in the United States to receive a charter.
- Three Georgians signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. By 1779 the state was almost completely under British control; it took the colonists and their allies three years to defeat the British in Georgia.
- “Coca-Cola” (which has its company headquarters in Atlanta) is the second-most-recognized word in any language. (The first is “okay.”)
- Atlanta is not the first town to serve as the state capital. Savannah, Augusta, Washington, Macon, Louisville, and Milledgeville have all been capital cities, some of them more than once.