High Plains Drifter, Part One: “You Feel Like You Should Kneel”Posted: September 7, 2011
The first entry in a series of stories detailing my experiences and encounters in Plains, GA, birthplace and current residence of one James Earl Carter, Jr. To be followed up when I have access to wifi, electrical outlets, and maybe even both at the same time—a rare occurrence since Hurricane Irate.
First things first, Plains (pop. 637) is not convenient. Not a convenient place to live, not a convenient place to visit, certainly not a convenient place from which to run your presidential campaign. Three hours south of Atlanta, two and a half east of Montgomery, Al, two and a half north of Talahassee, with peanut farms extending as far as you can see in every direction—
What I am saying is this: you are going to be traveling for a while.
That a U.S. president was born here, in small town Georgia, in this quiet rural community of well under 1,000, seems a cause for delight, a triumph of—well, something. The “American Dream,” maybe, I guess. “It was a little shocking that someone we knew wanted to be the President,” recalls Maxine Reese, campaign manager at the Plains Headquarters. “Why not?”
That Carter, now a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and international human rights activist, still chooses to live here today (and in the same modest ranch home he and Rosalyn purchased in 1961) seems somehow astonishing, as if the eight-decade lifetime was all a dream, and “Toto, I think we’re still in Plains.” Somehow, Carter writes, the town remains “a magnet that has always drawn me and Rosalynn back . . . in bright, happy times.”
For us, Plains was an endpoint, a “holy grail” sort of birthplace. There was so much symmetry to this route south (Chappaqua to Takoma Park, MD to Durham to Columbia, SC to Plains back up to Augusta, GA back to Durham back to Takoma Park back to Chappaqua), but Plains marked the far southern reach, the journey’s centerpiece, a tiny, idyllic corner of the world. I am reminded, then, of West Branch, IA (the farthest west I ever drove) or Fairfield, VT (by far the northernmost tip of this project, and probably most remote). These are places in some ways untouched by time—beyond its reach.
The Carter residence lies just two miles northeast of the president’s boyhood farm, on Overlook Drive, just off of the main road. The gated security checkpoint is visible from the road; the house is not. This property is labeled “Carter Compound” on the NPS-produced Plains map—”CLOSED TO PUBLIC,” warns the red print—and will eventually become part of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, one travel website assures, “when the Carters are dead.”
Can you imagine how that must feel? Going about your life, secure in the knowledge that the National Park Service will absorb your home, consume your possessions, swallow your essence?
Plains, then, is a special place—“an extremely small town with a major exposure to the world,” characterized one eccentric resident, who came all the way from Maryland to start the biggest political memorabilia shop in the South. (More on this guy soon.) “A lot of people have moved here because of President Carter,” explained one woman, who managed the Plains Historic Inn for some time and has lived in the town for 40 years. “But the ones of us who have lived here all along, we’ve just kinda lived through it!” She laughs. “We had to accept the changes whether we wanted to or not.”
It is the only presidential birthplace in the nation where you are liable to run into the president who was born here, at the “Wise Sanitarium” just north of town, then a hospital, now the Lillian G. Carter Nursing Center. “Black patients were treated in a separate building to the rear of the main building,” adds the historical marker—just one instance of the attention this town clearly pays to its history of segregation. Carter was the first U.S. president to be born in a hospital.
“My life on the farm during the Great Depression more nearly resembled farm life of fully 2,000 years ago than farm life today.”
The boyhood farm lies about two and a half miles southwest of Plains, technically in the unincorporated community of Archery, GA. Archery in the time of Carter’s youth consisted entirely of “a train stop, the St. Mark African-Methodist-Episcopal Church, houses used for railroad employees, and a school for black youth,” according to a site brochure; in the town lived two white families (including the Carters) and about twenty-five black families. “Our lives then were centered almost completely around our own family and our own home,” the president would later write. “We felt close to nature, close to members of our family, and close to God.” As for Plains? As a child, Carter recalled, “I always thought of myself as a visitor when I entered that ‘metropolitan’ community.”
“When electricity came to the farm, an unbelievable change took place in our lives.”
Carter lived on the 360-acre farm from 1928 until 1941, when he left for college, and it has today been restored to its 1938 appearance, before electricity and running water were installed. I will not bore you (read: myself) with details of this farm’s appearance. Here the Carters lived in a modest one-story home; here the family grew peanuts, cotton, sugar cane, and corn; here a modest scarecrow and field of crops remains. A kindly tour guide clad in overalls fits well with the décor, offers us tips for combating the area’s obnoxious gnat population.
And this farm is, I realize later, the farthest south I have ever been in my nearly 21 years.
“It was a great day in 1935 when Daddy purchased from a mail-order catalogue and erected a windmill with a high wooden tank . . .”
Rebecca and I piece our way through the Jimmy Carter Childhood Home, sniffing out buttons that trigger audio clips of Carter’s own recollections in each room. We soon become aware of a friendly stranger trailing us through the tour: a lanky middle-aged man with a cheery grin and a drawl like Ned Flanders (seriously, a dead ringer—I almost expected him to greet me with a jolly “Howdy ho there, neighbor!”). The locals here sense that we’re outsiders. Mine is the only car with out-of-state plates—when we pulled into Plains, it was the only car parked in the main block of town period. And their down-home friendliness is contagious.
“I taught at Georgia Southwestern University, where Jimmy Carter went out of high school,” the man boasts as way of introduction. He chuckles. “He actually wrote his name in the pavement way back when.”
We are visibly impressed, taken in by the man’s earnest Southern charm, and so on he goes.
“I actually ran into President Carter right outside of Walmart once. You feel like you should kneel.”
Ned Flanders introduces himself as Jay Cliett, a longtime math teacher from Americus (“this is one of my former students, in fact,” he reveals, pointing at the overall-clad tour guide, who blushes). That’s the closest “real” town, a veritable metropolis twelve miles away, where Plains residents go to buy grocery and see a doctor and experience “fast food.” Like so many locals, Jay speaks of President Carter like the wise and well-liked uncle figure who served on the town board but never really left home; and when I ask him about Plains during the fateful election year (I don’t need to specify), his eyes light up. “It was electric!” he gushes. “It was absolutely electric.”
I didn’t seek out Jay for an interview. He flocked to us, more accurately, like so many locals in Plains, eyeing us with curiosity and kindness, anxious to know our story, our origin, what brought us to Plains. (Most people, upon hearing we were from New York, just assumed we were on our way to or from Florida.) And the guy was full of stories—about living in Plains during Jimmy Carter’s election, about interactions with Secret Service agents (“I thought he was just tuning in to the Braves games”), about securing Jimmy Carter to speak, finally, at his university’s convocation ceremony. (If Jay can go one sentence without mentioning Georgia Southwestern . . . )
Here, then, is my conversation with Jay.
* * * *
So you’ve lived in the area since 1970.
How would you describe this area to an outsider?
It’s rural. It has agricultural base. It has changed over the years. When I first came here, there was a lot more racial disharmony than there is now. Things have really changed. Churches are now integrated, and that certainly was not the case when I came here in 1970. But I grew up in Georgia—south Georgia—so this was no different from the town I grew up in.
What was that like?
It was like two separates worlds. There was the white world, and there was the black world. And there was no interaction. I never knew a black kid in my hometown, because they went to their school and we went to ours. 1970 was the year integration started.
Have you taught math this whole time?
Yes. I retired in 2006, but I still teach—in fact I taught him [points at tour guide] since I’ve been retired. I tutor just for free because I love teaching math.
What was it like living in this area when Jimmy Carter was elected?
It was electric! It was absolutely electric. We were so proud of Georgia Southwestern [University] because he was one of us. And he was such a supporter of Southwestern. He was the governor of the state when Georgia Southwestern was made a four-year school from a two-year school, and he was one of us. We were extremely proud.
His campaign headquarters were here as well.
People from all—I mean, national new media—I mean, we would have people speak at [incomprehensible] Club, which I’m a member of. Somebody we saw on television doing the nightly news would be here. You couldn’t even get in Plains. If Jimmy Carter came home, there was no place to park. We had no fast food restaurants in Americus, but once he became president, the fast food restaurants started coming to Americus because there was such traffic. It was an exciting time. During the campaign, lots of people throughout the county went to Iowa and Vermont and New York and all campaigning for Jimmy Carter.
Did that commotion continue throughout the presidency?
How do you think it has changed the town?
Well, I think there’s a lot of pride in the fact that somebody from our county was president of the United States. You know, back when I was bringing my sister-in-law today, I said, “It’s just hard to believe that somebody from the little town of Plains, Georgia was president of the United States.” And I think that the pride that we have as southerners, because sometimes the south is looked down on by a lot of the country, but we’ve come a long way. We’re different than we were at one time.
What do you mean by that?
Well, in terms of our racial situation. I mean, it’s just a whole different world. Like you heard in there, he said the black did not respond to the fight. They were quiet. But they left and celebrated. That’s the way it was. You didn’t do anything to upset the white people. It was not a good situation. But I grew up and I didn’t realize that it was the way it was because it was all I’d ever known. Until integration and all.
How do people today express pride in Jimmy Carter?
Well, every time he teaches Sunday school, which is one Sunday a month, you have to get in the sanctuary of the church hours early or else you won’t get a seat.
Have you ever gotten in?
I have never gotten in. I have heard him speak at our church in Americus.
He’s very active in the community here, from what I’ve heard.
Yes. He’s just a wonderful person. When he got the Nobel Peace Prize, he gave over $300,000 of it to Georgia Southwestern State University because he loved the school.
Were people proud of his presidency here?
Uh. Most were. Some were not.
What’s it like having Secret Service working in this small town? It seems so out of place . . .
Well, I remember the first time I realized that we had Secret Service. I took my kids to a circus that came to town, and Amy Carter was a little girl and she was the ringmaster. And we were sitting up there in the stands, and I saw this person who had something in his ear. And I thought, “Oh! He’s listening to the Braves game.” And it hit me later, no, he was Secret Service because Amy was there. And when she was in school, they had Secret Service who went with her. And when she went on dances, I remember coming to a dance in Americus High School and they had Secret Service there following her. How inhibiting that must have been for a teenager! But it happened.
But then we had Secret Service who were in our Sunday school class who were just neat people. In fact, I still help with a math tournament at Georgia Southwestern, and the last one we had, Ms. Carter was going to be on campus for a meeting of the Rosalyn Carter Institute. She’s very involved with that, it deals with care-giving. And there was a guy who had on a suit and he had a gun and I still didn’t realize what was happenin’ until she got out of the car and then I realized he was Secret Service.
You’ve met President Carter before?
Oh yes. Actually, I was responsible for the convocation series at Georgia Southwestern. We had a convocation every month. And for years, I tried to get him to speak at convocation and I could never get him. One time I got a handwritten note on the letter I had sent, which I still have. You don’t get many handwritten things from a former president.
But the last convocation that I did, he spoke. And we have something called Convocation Hall, and it seats probably 3,000 people. It’s where we play basketball games. We had chairs on the floor. And a lady who works at the high school here, she and I advertised to high school groups and middle school groups across the state of Georgia. And they poured in. We had ‘em coming from the Georgia coast, from Atlanta, from Florida. It was amazing! We would have like 200 or something from Way Cross, and if you look at the map where Waycross is, it’s over in the southeast corner, right around the Okefenokee Swamp. Two-hundred-and-something people came from Waycross! And we had people coming from private schools in Atlanta. It was amazing. And it just filled up that place. It was a real way to go out.