PLAINS, Georgia — This is no picture perfect Williamsburg or nifty paint-by-the-numbers Sturbridge Village, no Six Flags Over the Fifties, either. This is the real McCoy.
Seven doors long, downtown Plains seems from another time. Take away the trifling detail that there’s a former president of the United States of America living down the way, it’s just a tiny, tiny little country town pretty much unchanged from what it must have been 20 or 40 or 60 years ago.
It’s not exactly handy, but well worth the trip for anyone rattling around in the South — with much historic, natural, geologic and economic diversion in the area. But Plains is more than anything Jimmy Carter, widely hailed as the nation’s foremost Ex-president, a Nobel peace prize laureate, author.
And citizen of Plains.
He is from here and this place is all about him and, as he has written again and again, he is all about Plains. He regularly teaches here at the Sunday school — and they put up a little notice in the shop windows detailing his schedule. He is seen bicycling with Rosalynn and a van full of secret service types behind. Everyone knows where he is at the moment. (The Netherlands, during our stop.)
The Carters live in their modest house, bought long before he became a world leader and fenced off now. There’s his old boyhood home down the road. There’s his high school, his peanut warehouse, his brother Billy’s old garage. He is said by one and all to be gracious, friendly and as caring about events and details here as he is about towering matters in Pyongyang or the tribes of Africa whose health is a major concern to him.
Particularly, the visitor is directed to the Plains Historic Inn, created out of Mrs. Carter’s property less than a decade ago. It is simply a magnificent experience to stay in this small place. Seven rooms. One for the decades beginning back in the 1920s — furnished with beds and bureaus and armoires, decorated with painting and pictures, statues and bric-a-bracery representing each decade.
The rooms are large and comfortable; it is no museum but a working inn. The common area allows for folks to chat comfortably among one another, or to sit out on the porch and watch the little world of Plains flow by. There are even photo albums happily mixing snaphots from the Carters’ great diplomatic and political accomplishments with family shots from around the house. Just sitting there on the table for our pleasure.
All this and we paid $78. We were recommended to try the 1980s room, a favorite of the staff. We peeked in on most of the others, too, and could see where you could make any one of them a favorite as well. There’s an “antique” shop downstairs in this building which once housed the town’s funeral parlor long ago (the elevator used to haul caskets and cadavers upstairs and down is still working) but it is more for tag sale curiosities than gilded antiques. This is Plains after all.
With fewer than 700 residents across its environs, Plains is a farming community — with peanut fields around and about. Trucks with lumber pass by a lot during the daytime hours — and it’s not where you’d go to catch the opera or the take in the disco. In fact, there’s not much to do at all in Plains, Georgia, and that is very much the point.
There’s a small restaurant which seems to be mostly closed so you drive 10 miles to Americus where the choices are wider. There’s no movie theater or concert hall, no sports stadiums or race tracks. What mostly is here in abundance is peace and quiet.
And history. The old railroad depot which had been Carter’s campaign headquarters is here. Troublesome Billy’s service station is closed, its pumps frozen at $1.79 a gallon, but you can get them to open the doors and look around at souvenirs of his life. The national parks Service runs the Boyhood Home and small High School museum and both are very much worth the trip.
For there you can see the forces that shaped country life in days-gone-by; the simpler virtues of hard work, faith and community. This doesn’t pretend to be any squeaky clean Mayberry or urban outpost. It is a small farming community just as it was before one of its family members went off to be president of the nation — and came back when he could live anywhere else he wanted.
You can learn a lot about a man from where he came from.
You can also enjoy the experience a lot.