Our series on rural Georgia writers begins in the quiet community of Plains, with a prolific former president’s poetry and prose.
Ask anyone well-versed in American literature and they’ll tell you—Georgians have a way with words. In fact, some of the most celebrated writers of the past two centuries made their homes and found their inspiration in the Peach State. Though the former Thirteenth Colony has produced more than 30 Pulitzer Prize recipients across all of the award’s categories, this first installment of our Rural Georgia Reader series highlights the writings of a rural Georgian who is not as well known for his writing as for his seven decades of service and leadership, both here at home and around the world.
Perhaps the most recognizable and highly regarded rural Georgian of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries began life on a farm outside the tiny town of Plains in the southwestern corner of the state. James Earl Carter, Jr., better known as former President Jimmy Carter, was the oldest of four children born to Earl, a farmer and merchant, and Lillian, a nurse. While the younger Carter surprised no one in his hometown by attaining an appointment to and graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy and embarking on a promising path as a nuclear engineer and submariner, he shocked even his wife and fellow Plains native, Rosalynn, with his decision to return to rural Georgia just as his career began to pick up steam.
It was a decision that struck even him as strange and slightly scary at the time, according to his 2015 memoir, A Full Life: Reflections at 90. Carter’s decision to return to his hometown in rural Georgia in 1953 would prove to be a pivot point not only in his life, but in world history as well. As he tried to fill the shoes of his recently deceased father in the family farming and business enterprises, Carter became increasingly involved in both community and church affairs. Though he had no intention of seeking political position upon his return to rural life, his convictions drove him in that direction. In 1963, he was elected to the state senate, then as Georgia’s governor and finally, in 1976, as the 39th president of the United States, and that was all before a remarkable career in diplomacy that led to a Nobel Peace Prize for the boy from Plains.
Like all good stories, Carter’s contains its fair share of victories and defeats, highs and lows. And though this quintessential son of rural Georgia is not best known as a writer, he is certainly one of the state’s most prolific. Among his 30 book-length publications are a handful of must-reads for the lover of Georgia literature. Those in-the-know will recommend the reader new-to-Carter begin with either A Full Life or An Hour Before Daylight: Memoirs of a Rural Boyhood, which topped the New York Times best-seller list and was a Pulitzer finalist when it was released in 2001. For a little deeper dive, Carter’s collection of poetry, Always a Reckoning, offers a different perspective on the thoughts and experiences of the world leader.
Though these three rank at the top of the Rural Center’s recommended reading list, ardent Carter admirers would, no doubt, enjoy his devotional books, his Outdoor Journal, one of his many public policy pieces or The Hornet’s Nest, his novel about two families caught up in colonial Georgia’s Revolutionary struggle.
As with any author, Carter’s writings are enhanced for the reader by experiencing firsthand the places and people about which he writes. Fortunately for the consumer in this case, due to Carter’s accomplishments and his return to Plains post-presidency, many of his hometown haunts are exquisitely preserved and a delight to visit. From the farm in Archery where Carter spent his boyhood to his family’s former peanut warehouse to the depot where he announced his candidacy for President, much of what he writes about in his memoirs and poetry is open to the public. The headquarters of the Jimmy Carter National Historical Park in Plains is located in the former Plains High School building just across the railroad tracks and an easy stroll from downtown Plains. There are no admission fees at the historic sites, but there is a short drive between those in Plains and Carter’s boyhood home and farm in Archery.
While visiting Plains, enjoy a delicious meal downtown at the Buffalo Café and finish the experience with locals’ favorite, peanut butter ice cream from Plain Peanuts a couple of doors down. Peruse antiques at the opposite end of the main street and spend the night in one of the Plains Historic Inn’s seven unique guest suites, each delightfully decorated in honor of a decade of Carter’s life.
If you long to experience Plains like a local, plan to take in the annual Plains Peanut Festival in September or enjoy the outstanding Fourth of July fireworks display and street dance. Make your plans for these events well in advance, however, as Plains is a truly tiny town and space of any sort is limited. Nearby Americus offers a vibrant, historic downtown complete with one-of-a-kind local shops, restaurants and the beautifully restored Windsor Hotel, completed in 1892.
While Plains is admittedly off the beaten path—part of its charm—it is not difficult to reach and is a pleasant drive from any direction. From Interstate 75, exit at Cordele (exit 101), then follow U.S. Hwy. 280/GA Hwy. 30 through downtown Americus and on to Plains. The route is well marked with directional signage to the area’s various national historic sites.
For an even more scenic route, consider traveling U.S. Hwy. 19 from points to the north or south of Plains. Allocate a bit more time for this route, as it passes through a number of rural communities and picturesque downtowns. Stop along the way to contribute to a rural economy by refilling your tank (and your vehicle’s) or making a purchase at a local shop. Watch for rural murals along this route as well—there are several to enjoy.
As a man of character, courage and commitment to his rural Georgia roots, President Carter has led an exemplary life of leadership and service. We at the Rural Center believe he would be pleased to know of your interest in his writings and his hometown. Drop us a line or leave a comment on Facebook or Instagram to let us know which of his publications is your personal favorite and why. And in the spirit of this exceptional rural Georgian, let his works and words inspire you to do something great for your community, state or nation!
Photo credits, from top: Downtown Plains, Mary Catherine Gaston Carter Boyhood Farm, Ralph Daniels Carter books, Mary Catherine Gaston Downtown Plains, Ralph Daniels