Gwen Hill saw Jimmy Carter coming as she looked out the window from Mom's Kitchen. It was early morning. She was baking biscuits. She runs the only restaurant in Plains, population 700. Jimmy Carter encouraged Hill and her mother to open it in 2000 so that the thousands of visitors who have made their way to Plains these past 30 years would have a place to eat.
There he was, the 39th president, now 85, coming into town on his bicycle, past red-clay fields of peanuts. He does that often. He eats the greens at Mom's Kitchen two or three times a month. He asks for buttermilk. He avoids the fried chicken and catfish. He attends board meetings of the Plains Better Hometown Program. He goes to the hot dog suppers. He teaches Sunday school. He updates his church congregation of 30 on North Korean nuclear disarmament. He checks on the Plains Historic Inn, the only hotel in the town, which he renovated with the help of jail inmates in 2001. He'll be the star attraction of the Plains Peanut Festival this coming weekend.
Hill watched Carter come. He pedaled a one-speed bike. He wore a helmet and knee pads. He'd rolled up his pants on his right leg to keep from getting tangled in the chain.
A Secret Service agent coasted behind him on a racing bike.
The former president and 2002 Nobel Peace Prize winner, pant leg hitched up, pedaled furiously.
• • •
Plains is a one-traffic-light town. The light blinks yellow, never turning red. The town lies on two-lane U.S. 280 an hour west of Interstate 75. On the way, 280 passes through pecan groves and cotton fields. Some visitors get there by way of the SAM Shortline, a tourist excursion train that embarks from Cordele, also an hour to the east.
The downtown consists of just a few structures. There's the Phillips 66 gas station famously operated by Carter's late brother, Billy. It's now a museum. There's Mom's Kitchen, and just beyond a little strip of storefronts. They include the inn, a trading post where you can still buy a Billy Beer, a coffee shop and a peanut store. Down the street is the train depot, which was Carter's campaign headquarters in 1976. Back then, it had the only restroom downtown.
Just down the road is Carter's boyhood home, where as the eldest son he picked cotton and dug peanuts, and was encouraged to read at the dinner table. His days lasted 15 hours. The ambience remains one of pronounced manual and intellectual rigor. A boy's lumpy bed and book stacks lie in the back of a wood-frame shotgun house. But his boyhood home, now maintained by the National Park Service, is also the only farm that anyone knows of with a clay tennis court.
Plains looks virtually the same as it did in 1976. The campaign signs are still up. Even the prices seem vintage '70s. A breakfast at Mom's goes for $4. Those things may help explain why little one-blinker-light Plains still draws visitors three decades after Carter left office.
"It's a coming home," said Dana Kersey, a children's storyteller at Carter's boyhood farm. "It's a place still close to family, close to nature, close to God. People come to see that."
The area has been ravaged by familiar modern plagues. A nearby auto bumper factory closed. A lighting company moved half its operations to Mexico. A tornado roared through neighboring Americus in 2007. Farmers have had almost no rain all summer. Plains relies on inmate labor for almost all its maintenance.
But two things endure. The peanuts are now in harvest, and they'll be celebrated at next weekend's festival. And Jimmy Carter, who turns 86 on Oct. 1 and has another book, White House Diary, coming out Monday, has his hand firmly on Plains' future.
That will probably continue even after he passes.
• • •
At the Plains Trading Post, grinning owner Philip Kurland ambushes his customers as soon as they enter. There's no stopping him:
"Why was there no Nativity scene in the Clinton White House? They couldn't find a virgin. What about at the Bush White House? They couldn't find Three Wise Men."
He and his wife, Ramona, are from Maryland, where he worked in mail marketing. He had a huge personal collection of campaign buttons he began amassing when he was 8 years old. Fourteen years ago, the Kurlands came to Plains and opened the Trading Post.
Kurland cannot offer a good explanation for what he did other than "We went from junk mail to junk."
He has three cases of Billy Beer that he sells for $10 a can. He said it tastes as bad today as it did when Billy Carter brewed it 30 years ago. His bestselling items are vintage campaign buttons, though he has an extensive collection of Secret Service Presidential Detail lapel buttons that Carter's protectors, wearing dark suits and dark glasses, buy and trade.
He has a button that says: "The Carter Special: A Little Peanut Butter, A Lot of Baloney."
His bestselling buttons, he said, have predicted the outcome of presidential elections, except for the election of President Barack Obama. It doesn't look good for the Democrats in 2012. Obama's buttons remain highly unpopular. His current bestseller is Sarah Palin.
Her button says, "Madam President? You Betcha!"
But the Kurlands also get customers from around the world who want them to tell everything they know about Carter. A visitor from Africa, where Carter has battled disease and famine through his renowned Carter Center in Atlanta, asked Ramona if she had ever shaken the president's hand. Many times, she said.
"He grabbed my hand with both hands," Ramona said. "He said, 'I've touched the hand that touched Jimmy Carter's.' "
Back in 2000, Carter came by to visit Kurland when he was ailing. The former president was taken upstairs, where Ramona had renovated 3,000 square feet of space into a gleaming Victorian residence.
"I've always wanted to do something like this," Carter told her.
• • •
At that time, the town had no inn. Tourists stayed in Americus, 10 miles away. But one shop down from the Trading Post was an antique store with a vacant upper level that had once been used for embalming.
Carter persuaded the town to create an inn on the upper level, something like Ramona Kurland's second floor. He took charge of the renovation, using Plains' ever-available inmate labor to wall off seven bedrooms, each with a bath.
Rosalynn Carter decorated each room to represent a different decade — from the '20s to the '80s. The '70s room is called the Presidential Suite.
Plains hired Jan Williams as innkeeper.
She had been the fourth-grade teacher of Jimmy Carter's only daughter, Amy.
• • •
The SAM Shortline ends up at the Carter boyhood farm, hardly five minutes away in the neighboring community of Archery. Like almost every other attraction, it's free. Visitors stroll through the little shotgun house, past the wood stoves, the numerous bookcases, the battery-operated parlor radio, into the 360 acres beyond.
There, National Park Service rangers in coveralls have planted stands of cotton, sugar cane and peanuts. Visitors often ask where the peanut trees are. They're given a crash course in peanut biology. It's a legume, like a black-eyed pea, not a nut, they're told. Peanut plants produce a small yellow flower that pollinates itself. It transforms into a stem called a "peg" that turns toward the soil and burrows down. That peg becomes a peanut.
Jimmy's job, as a farm boy, was to help dig up the peanuts, shake them off their vines, dry them and store them.
Carter described the life of a farm boy in his 1995 poem, titled Always A Reckoning, a favorite saying of his father. It's shown to children visiting the farm. In the poem, Carter said that everyone on a farm must pay his or her own way.
Even small boys.
• • •
The peanut harvest begins now in Plains. Farmer Harold Israel, a former classmate of Carter's, is harvesting early because of the summerlong drought. It has been one of the hottest summers in Israel's memory.
You'll never find a farmer who will say things are going great, but Israel expects a good harvest. He grows a variety of "runner" peanut called a Georgia greener. It ends up in peanut butter and candy bars. (The larger type of shelled peanut that you find at baseball parks comes from Virginia.)
Israel's peanuts are no longer dug by hand. The plants are dug up and flipped over by blades pulled behind a tractor. After they dry, a combine scoops up the plants, shakes the peanuts loose and pulverizes the plant in a mulch that goes back into the soil.
Among farmers like Israel, Jimmy Carter's Democratic politics are a thing of the past. Most are very conservative. They admire Carter for never abandoning Plains, they appreciate how he has kept the town alive, but they don't like the politics he stands for.
Israel wanted to know about the preacher down in Gainesville, who wanted to burn the Koran on the anniversary of 9/11. Burn those books, he said. Israel supported the preacher "100 percent."
Told it was a dangerous situation in Gainesville, the farmer said, "Well, Nathan Hale died for his country, didn't he?"
• • •
Last Sunday Carter took the podium at Maranatha Baptist Church, He has taught Sunday school there since his presidency. He teaches several times a month. He made the mahogany collection plates and the cross above the altar. Rosalynn Carter took a pew on the side. The little church's membership has dwindled to about 30. The average age is 70, including many widows.
When Carter teaches Sunday school, the pews fill up with tourists. Sometimes they forget they're in church. During one infamous service, a woman's cell phone rang as the president was speaking. She answered. She said out loud, "You won't believe where I am. It's Jimmy Carter teaching Sunday school. He doesn't look nearly so old in person."
He came to teach on the day after the 9/11 anniversary. He first updated the congregation on his recent trip to North Korea where he went to bring home an American imprisoned for entering the country illegally. He reminded church members that he had been there before and had won an agreement on nuclear disarmament that the Bush administration later disowned. He said North Korea wants a disarmament deal again — that's why they invited him. Watch for future headlines, he said.
Then he started his lesson. He wanted to talk about the anti-Islam fervor in the United States, manifested by the Koran-burning threats by the Gainesville preacher and the uproar over a Muslim center near ground zero in New York.
He read from the Old Testament's Book of Kings, Chapter 16, the part about how the prophet Elijah chastised King Ahab for his dual allegiances to God and the false god Baal, how Elijah told Ahab he could follow only one god, not two.
As he read, he told the congregation, "Hang on, this gets even more exciting."
He compared Ahab to those who espouse religious freedom, but don't want Muslims to have it. "We need to stretch our hearts and minds," he said, "not toward transient hatreds, but to the teachings of Jesus."
Afterward, he went outside to hold hands with Rosalynn and pose for pictures with each visitor. Then, the Secret Service took him home.
It was true. Jimmy Carter didn't look nearly so old in person.
John Barry can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2258.