We get off the train on Main Street in Plains, where there are an antique mall and shops selling peanut products and Jimmy Carter souvenirs; the gas station that Billy Carter, the president’s late brother, once owned; peanut warehouses; and the old train depot-turned-museum.
A few blocks to the east is the Plains High School museum. A few blocks west is the compound where the former president and first lady live. A little further away is Maranatha Baptist Church, where Jimmy Carter still teaches Sunday School most weeks — his Sunday School schedule is posted all over town and the Internet.
Most of the passengers head for Main Street to get lunch and a taste of peanut butter ice cream, but I go in the opposite direction. I want to see the Carter compound.
The first evidence that I’ve arrived is a sign half-hidden by trees that says “NO STOPPING. KEEP MOVING.” A rail fence keeps people on the sidewalk, except for a spot where the fencing detours and visitors can walk 20 or 25 feet onto the property, where signs tell about the 12-acre compound. Literature says the Carter home is a modest ranch house, but I can’t see it through the trees and the chain-link fences with privacy slats. A small Secret Service gatehouse at the head of the driveway ensures that tourists don’t wander up to the Carters’ door.
Our next stop is Archery, a town so tiny you won’t find it on a map. Earl and Lillian Carter moved here in 1928, when Jimmy was 4 years old, and the future president lived here until he left for college. Running water and power were not available until 1938, and the property has been restored to that pre-electricity era.
We walk through the house where Earl and Lillian Carter raised their four children, past the clay tennis court that Earl Carter built, and into the country store where a young Jimmy worked. We look in through the windows of a shed where a blacksmith demonstrates his trade. We wander through the barn, past patches of cotton and sugar cane and a windmill, and look over a neat row of rusted farm equipment. In the fields beyond, a shaggy goat keeps company with horses.
The primary crop on the Carter farm was cotton, but when Earl Carter began growing peanuts, Jimmy sold them on the street. He took over the family peanut business after his father died in 1953.
We’re scheduled for a 50-minute stop in Archery, but after about half an hour, I feel a few drops of rain, and within a minute, it’s pouring. I run for the train, as do the other riders. Back on board, the fellow on the PA system says, “In Georgia we’ve got two kinds of rain — no rain and buckets of rain.”
We ride back in the rain, a gray sky looming over the fields we pass, and I think that the fields must look the same as they did more than 60 years ago, when the rail cars we’re riding in were new.