President Carter at Home
by Terry Hogan
If you have more than a few gray hairs, you may remember President Carter when he was in office. Or you may even remember his campaign for presidency. More than a few commentators poked fun at this Georgia peanut farmer who lived in a small town of about 700 folks. In fact, Plains, Georgia still has a few larger-than-life smiling peanuts that bear a resemblance to a younger Jimmy Carter.
Jimmy Carter only served one term as President. After that, he returned home to Plains. But the Carters did not live the good life of a retired President. He helped folks. He helped build and repair homes in Plains. He helped Habitat for Humanity to become a force in providing homes and improving the lives of thousands around the world. It is no accident that the headquarters for Habitat for Humanity is located in Americus, Georgia, just a short ten miles down the road from Plains.
It is my belief that President Carter has done more good after leaving office than any other President of relatively recent history. (I should note that I more often than not, vote Republican.) While some have hit the circuit making expensive speeches around the world, President Carter undertook to make the world better and safer. The Carters established the Carter Center. Through it, they work to find ways to wage peace, not war.
My wife and I visited Plains in September. It is a town of about 700 souls, excluding the few billion gnats buzzing about. Main Street is about a block long, if you define it by the length of stores. There are two streets actually, separated by a railroad track that passes through the center of Plains. The old train depot was President Carter's campaign headquarters. It has been maintained as such.
We stayed in the Plains Historic Inn at 106 Main Street, which is a bed and breakfast owned by the Carters. We were told that Rosalynn helped design the bedrooms. The bedrooms are on the second story of one of the old stores in downtown Plains. The first floor now offers up antiques, collectibles, and Carter books for sale. Each of the bedrooms is furnished in the style of a decade. For example, our room was designed for the 1920's. It had a claw-foot bathtub, pedestal sink, and old black dial phone of the period (which worked) and the magazines and newspapers were all from the 1920s.
From the balcony on the second floor, we could see Carter's 1976 campaign headquarters; all of downtown Plains; the famous Billy Carter's Service Station; and the former Carter Warehouse, now named the Golden Peanut Company. You could also see the stone memorial for a stray dog who adopted Carter's 1976 campaign headquarters as his home. The dog greeted newsmen and anyone else who had a pat and a handout. He lived there for ten years. A small marker across from the old railroad depot marks his appearance, his life and his death. Such is the life and times of Plains, Georgia.
On Saturday afternoon, we toured Plains and the surrounding historical sites. We visited Carter's boyhood home and the "commissary" that the Carter family ran next door. The latter was more like a company store where local farm hands could buy the few essentials that they couldn't grow or make themselves. Interestingly, one of the items on display was the Galesburg-made Miracle Washer- a galvanized metal cone-shaped plunger on a stick that was used to help wash clothes. I don't know whether such an item was actually sold there, or if was the product of the National Park Service employee imagination. But there it was - a long way from Galesburg.
On Sunday morning, we got up early and headed to the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains. It wasn't much of a drive and traffic was pretty light, as you might expect in a town of 700 inhabitants. Maranatha is a small congregation, having only about 125 members. But it has about 10,000 to 12,000 visitors a year, according to the recently retired minister. Maranatha has a hard working deacon and Sunday School Teacher - Jimmy Carter. He must be pretty good as he brings in the crowds, so we thought we'd give him a try.
We stood in line for about an hour, being the fifth and sixth persons in line. I made Louise get up a little too early, perhaps. After being searched by the Secret Service, we were escorted to the front row of the church. (I think the last time I was that close to the front of a church was at our wedding.)
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter entered the church just before the Sunday School Class was to start. Before the lesson began, President Carter allowed photos to be taken. He did an excellent class, with minimal referral to notes. He would occasionally go off on tangents about some event in the Middle East that occurred before or while he was in office. It served to both make a point for the lesson and to provide a perspective that only an international leader could provide.
At the end of the class, he and his secret service herd left to travel to Americus as he had a speech to make there at another church. But he promised to return at the end of the Maranatha service so that interested visitors could have their photos taken with them. He was true to his word. Like clockwork, the secret service caravan arrived as we were walking out of the church. The Carters lined up and they graciously withstood 90 degree weather and annoying gnats until all who wanted a photo taken had been satisfied.
It is also worth noting that the membership was very gracious in accepting visitors. There apparently is a story that goes with that. Maranatha Baptist Church split off from the Plains Baptist Church. The Plains Baptist Church had been Jimmy Carter's family church and where he was baptized. However, with the crowds of reporters, the public, and others who began to crowd into the small church when Jimmy was running for president, the Plains Baptist Church turned its back to the crowds and preferred not to serve the visitor, or those of differing faiths and races. As a result, the split occurred. The Maranatha Baptist Church that formed in the late 1970Ős opened its doors to one and all. The Carters became members in 1981, after returning from the White House.
President Carter wasn't done for the day, following the photo session, even if it was Sunday. At 4 PM, he was scheduled to meet with the president of Bolivia. The Bolivian president had been denied a meeting with President Bush, apparently due to political differences. President Carter appears to believe that problems can better be solved by communication than by isolation.
We heard a story about President Carter when we were in Plains. There was an old woman who lived by herself in a small house in Plains. The roof leaked badly. She was able to save enough money to buy the materials to repair the roof, but lacked the money to pay someone to make the repairs. Some of the local Plains folks got together and re-roofed the house. President Carter had just returned from an overseas trip and had gotten home about 2:30 in the morning. By the time he arrived at the house, the debris was being cleaned up. The job was about done. So President Carter went inside the house and asked her what he could do. She answered that the leak had gone on for so long that part of the floor of the house was rotten. He went home and returned with his tools and some wood. He repaired her floor.
From "handy man" to host of heads of state, this is the life of President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn. At home in Plains.