By GARY A. WARNER
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
PLAINS, Ga. -- The wafting aroma of roasted goobers just couldn't compete with the president-peeping in downtown Plains.
A new batch of warm peanuts had just been put out in the troughs next to a broken-up slab of sticky, sweet peanut brittle when word swept across the plank floorboards of Plains Peanuts.
The white SUV was in town with its gaggle of Secret Service agents. The knot of tourists scurried up the block to eyeball the guy in the flannel shirt, work hat and faded jeans -- held up by a belt with a huge "JC" buckle -- making gestures on the far side of a dusty plate-glass window.
Jimmy Carter, former leader of the Free World and future Nobel Peace Prize winner, was picking at the brickwork while critiquing the carpentry of a bed and breakfast going up on the one-block main street that passes for downtown Plains.
Loves the town
Done with his tutorial, Carter slowly sauntered to the doorway to shoot the breeze. Carter is deeply in love with his hometown. He's the town's elder statesman, but also its top tourist attraction.
"Mr. President, would you mind if I took a picture of you with my son," I asked, ready for a "Sorry, gotta go."
"Sure, if he takes the straw out of his mouth," Carter drawled. He said it with a grin, exposing that signature mouthful of teeth. Just like the one on the 13-foot Smiling Peanut statue out on the edge of town.
He shook hands with a firm, dry, cool handshake peppered with the old rough calluses of a guy who uses his grip for more than just glad-handing. I asked him why in all the world he would come back to this farm village of 716 residents. Spying my notebook, he got a little prickly and suggested I go up to the high school that houses a small Carter museum and buy his autobiography. At 78, he's tired of explaining himself.
But his better angels nudged his conscience and he softened a bit.
"I've been a lot of places, in the Navy, in government and the presidency," he said. "But this is home. This is where my family has lived since 1883. My friends are here. My church is here. These are our neighbors. No matter where we go, when we come back, we know we're home."
Then he climbed into the SUV and drove slowly off toward the Carter compound on the edge of town. The crowd shuffled off back down the street, cracking peanuts and talking about their luck in happening on one of the five living ex-presidents.
My son was on the cell phone, relaying the news of his meeting to his grandfather in California.
"Grandpa -- I just met President Carter. He's not president anymore, but he's not dead, he's just old."
It's a good old that's just getting better.
In December, Jimmy Carter was away from Plains on one of his frequent hops across the globe. This trip was especially sweet -- a journey to Oslo, Norway, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Carter was awarded the honor for what the prize committee called "his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development."
Love him or loathe him -- and there are millions of Americans in both camps -- Carter's profile has only risen with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize. That's fine with Plains, where Carter is something of a cottage industry.
Plains sits in the southwest quarter of Georgia, a flat farming region that rarely made any tourist map. Atlanta and the antebellum charms of Savannah and Athens were the big draws. If there was a Peach State presidential site to see, it was Warm Springs, the mountain resort where Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought relief from the pains of his polio and where he died on April 12, 1945.
If visitors came to Plains at all, it was likely to tour nearby Andersonville, the infamous Confederate prison camp where 12,912 prisoners died during the Civil War. Or perhaps stay at the stately Windsor Hotel in nearby Americus, one of the great Victorian inns of the Deep South.
Everything changed in town when Carter won the presidency in 1976. Plains became a tourist destination. Visitors could stop by to chat with the new president's mother, Lillian, or buy souvenirs at brother Billy's gas station.
But four often-disappointing years later, voters tossed Carter out of the White House in favor of Ronald Reagan.
Other ex-presidents have gone on to lucrative business ventures. Herbert Hoover moved into the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. Gerald Ford took up the golfer's life in the California desert.
Carter went home to Plains.
Forced retirement didn't sit well with Carter, who was just 56 years old when he got the boot. He wrote books, helped plan his presidential library near Atlanta, and traveled. All very ex-presidential. But to the standard ex-White House resident's resume, Carter added a few twists. His Carter Center promotes international peace. He builds homes with Habitat for Humanity. He roams the world to promote his version of world peace. The Middle East, Cuba, Korea and Africa are among his past stops.
At home, he worked on the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, the 77-acre collection of government-run attractions sprinkled about Plains. It was finally finished this autumn.
Plains High School operates as the local visitors center and Carter museum. One classroom has been restored to look as it did when Jimmy and future wife Rosalynn were attending in the early 1940s. Lessons are still chalked on the blackboard and a portrait of George Washington hangs on high.
The most evocative of all "Carter Country" spots, the Boyhood Farm, is out by the railroad tracks southwest of town.
Carter's parents moved into the white clapboard home with a screened porch in 1928. There was no electricity or running water until 1938. A reconstructed outhouse -- complete with a bucket of corncobs (toilet paper was too expensive) -- is a reminder of those times.
Trains would rumble by on the tracks just across the street, kicking up dust and shaking the house. It was something the family just learned to sleep through. The nearby railway station meant it was easy to get their crops -- sometimes cotton, more often peanuts -- off to market.
The simple farmhouse by the side of the road is filled with Carter memorabilia and re-creations of furniture from the time. Carter's recorded recollections are played at various points in the small, Spartan rooms.
"It was hot in the summer, cold in the winter," Carter recalls in one recording.
The family tool shed has been restored to hold an amazingly accessible collection of vintage shovels, rakes and other implements. Visitors can move the grinding wheel used to sharpen knives and hoes.
Farm life was often arduous, as when boll weevils settled into the crops and the children were sent into the field to soak the cotton with a mix of arsenic and molasses.
"It was a job for boys and not men and we despised the task," Carter wrote in "Why Not the Best." "After a few hours in the field our trousers, legs and bare feet would be saturated with the syrupy mess."
Back in town, it took us all of 20 minutes to tour the major downtown sites. The main highlight is Plains Depot, the railroad office built in 1885 that is the oldest building in town. It had gone largely unused for a quarter-century when Carter rented it for the headquarters for his underdog bid for the presidency in 1976.
A popular stopping point is the Smiling Peanut, a giant goober with Carter's trademark smile. About a half-mile from the depot on Highway 45N, the statue, donated by Democratic activists, was later weatherized to make it a permanent attraction.
Because we ran into Carter on the street, we didn't need to return on Sunday, when Carter leads a Sunday school class at Maranatha Baptist Church. The public is welcome, though the church Web site tries to keep out-of-town visitors focused:
"While we admire and respect President Carter, our focus is on Jesus Christ," the site says, "the crucified Son of God who came to reveal to all humankind the love and grace of God."