travel dates: November 18-20, 2017
It was the night before we were all going to go to Jimmy Carter’s Sunday school class, and I was fretting. I’d never been in the same room with a real, live president before. What would we say? What were we supposed to do? Would the Secret Service be suspicious of our big old van, which looks a little like something the Libyans might carry plutonium around in in Back to the Future?
There were, it turned out, two reasons why I needn’t have fretted: 1. the folks at Marantha Baptist Church run a tight ship. There’s an orientation session before Sunday school where you learn exactly how things are going to go and what you’re supposed to do and it’s all pretty straightforward. And 2. I didn’t get to go to Sunday school and meet Jimmy Carter after all.
Our trip to Plains, GA, Jimmy Carter’s hometown, was a spur of the moment change of plans. We were supposed to go to the mountains that weekend, but the forecast called for 20 degree nights, and we just weren’t feeling up for that. South Georgia promised somewhat warmer temperatures and the chance to check a president’s house off our list. I knew that Jimmy Carter often teaches Sunday school at his church in Plains, so I checked before we left and was excited to find out that he’d be there for our weekend.
We’d planned for the whole family to go. There’s childcare for kids up to kindergarten, so Abe would be fine, right?! But Sunday morning he woke up in a terrible mood. (He usually takes a few days to settle in on trips, which makes weekend trips pretty rough). We contemplated taking the grumpy four year old for an hour or so of waiting in line, followed by an hour long orientation before childcare was available, then hoping he’d happily go off to play with people he’d never met in a place he’d never been to for two hours.
We decided one of us should stay at the campground with him. Dave offered to stay, but I was, as I’ve mentioned, already nervous about the whole Jimmy Carter experience and didn’t really want to take it on the as the only adult, so I stayed behind and bravely and selflessly sent the rest of my family off to meet Georgia’s only president.
Even though I didn’t get to go, I’m incredibly impressed that President Carter is still giving up his time most weeks to do this; anyone who can get themselves to south Georgia can meet him and Rosalynn, get a photo taken to prove it happened, and get a Sunday school lesson in the bargain. I can’t imagine any other former president being so accessible.
Okay, so suppose you want to go see Jimmy Carter teach Sunday school and you don’t have a grumpy four year old to slow you down. The Marantha Baptist Church website gives a pretty good rundown of how it all works (along with President Carter’s schedule for the next few months). Basically, you need to get there as early as you can. They ask that you make sure to arrive before the orientation starts at 9 (Sunday school starts at 10), but if you want to make sure you get a seat in the sanctuary, the earlier the better. We’re not great at getting an early start, so my family didn’t make it there until about 8:15, but lots of people line up much, much earlier–as early as 3 or 4 in the morning.
There’s the sanctuary where President Carter teaches and then another room with a TV in it that’s used as an overflow room. The website says that there was only one Sunday in the past year when they haven’t had room to seat everyone in one of these two spaces and that arriving by 6 AM will usually get you a seat in the sanctuary.
I gather that attendance goes up and down unpredictably; some weeks big tour groups show up, for example. The Sunday my family was there (the weekend before Thanksgiving), their relatively late 8:15 arrival meant they were first seated in the overflow room but moved to the sanctuary when Sunday school started (they hold some seats for regular members and release them if they don’t fill). President Carter does come into the overflow room briefly to greet people, but Dave says that watching on the TV screen is not nearly the same as being in the same room, so the early birds catch the much better view.
After Sunday school there’s a church service at 11 and after the church service President and Mrs. Carter stay long enough for every family or group to have its photo taken (there is someone on hand to take the picture for you with your camera or phone). You have to stay for the service to get your photo; no sneaking out for brunch and then trying to come back after and get in line! And despite my worries, there’s not much chance to mess up the etiquette here, as the whole thing is very carefully orchestrated. At the orientation beforehand, they tell you that isn’t a time to chat or share your shared genealogy with President Carter (apparently an awful lot of people want to do that if they’re not specifically told not to). The idea is for everyone to get there picture and for the Carters to get to leave as soon as possible (not to go home. You might think a 93 year old who’s just finished teaching Sunday school, attending church, and having his photo taken with group after group of strangers might want to go home and take a nap. But not Jimmy Carter. He and Rosalynn had a luncheon to get to afterwards with a group of refugees or something noble like that).
So all in all, it was an awesome experience (or so I hear) and definitely worth making a trip for.
But the Jimmy Carter fun doesn’t end at church! Dave and the older kids came back to the campground for lunch, and then we all headed out to see the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site. There are a number of locations around Plains that make up the historic site; we started our visit at the Plains High School, where the visitors center and gift shop are located.
Here, you can see a classroom set up to look like it did when Jimmy Carter attended elementary school there:
And there are a couple of museum exhibit areas, too. In one room, there’s a video playing on a loop of President and Mrs. Carter giving a tour of their home in Plains. The childhood home is part of the historic site and open to the public, but the video is the only way to see the Carters’ current home, so that was really interesting (particularly to presidential house nerds like me). In addition to teaching Sunday school and building houses for homeless people and lunching with refugees and whatnot, Jimmy Carter personally built like half the furniture in his house. He has a new book about woodworking out if you want to attempt to be as cool as Jimmy Carter (affiliate link; if you buy something after following my link I get a small commission but you don’t pay extra. I assume Jimmy Carter gets some money, too).
There’s usually another film playing in the auditorium, but there was some sort of technical problem going on while we were there and we couldn’t watch that one.
Next we headed over to the Carter Boyhood Farm. There are guided tours available here on a set schedule, but we opted to just explore on our own. We said hello to the farm animals:
And checked out the very modest house where President Carter grew up:
There are signs posted and buttons to press around the house giving more information about what you’re seeing, including a charming story in his bedroom about the Christmas Santa left a pony for President Carter:
The outbuildings include a barn and a general store:
And finally we went back downtown to see the Plains Depot, the building that was used as Carter’s campaign headquarters during the 1976 presidential campaign (because, we learned, it was the only building available with a working bathroom). This is a quick stop with some exhibits about the campaign inside:
Right across the street in the little strip of shops that makes up downtown Plains, there’s more Jimmy Carter fun to be had. We stopped by the Plains Trading Company, a gift and souvenir store that boasts an incredible collection of original political memorabilia. We bought a Carter/Mondale bumper sticker that’s been waiting to go on someone’s car since 1980 to put on Big Blue the van next to our “All the way with LBJ” sticker. And the building and business are currently for sale, so if anyone has always wanted to move to South Georgia and sell political memorabilia, here’s your chance!
Then we went next door to Plain Peanuts for some (very good) peanut butter ice cream:
So that’s one very full day of a south Georgia weekend, but we had two. We spent the other day of this trip visiting Providence Canyon State Park in somewhat close by Lumpkin, Georgia. Our campground for this trip was the Americus KOA (full review coming later), which is right around an hour from Providence Canyon. If Providence Canyon is your primary destination, you can stay at Florence Marina State Park just down the road. But if you want to hit Plains and Providence Canyon without changing campgrounds, you’re going to have to do some driving. Boring driving through flat farmland.
We did that and made it to the park for some hiking. We’d been to Providence Canyon very briefly once before, but hadn’t hiked down into the canyon on that trip, so we were excited to get a different perspective.
Providence Canyon is known as Georgia’s “Little Grand Canyon.” Having just gone to the real Grand Canyon over the summer, I can say that it’s a VERY little grand canyon. But it’s still pretty.
The strangest thing about Providence Canyon is that it wasn’t there at all 200 years ago. It was formed by erosion caused by poor farming practices in the 1800s. So given its young age compared to the Grand Canyon, it’s actually really impressive. It’s also way easier to hike down into.
There’s a trail that starts behind the small visitors center and museum that takes you down into the canyon. It’s all downhill on the way in and all uphill on the way back out, of course, but the uphill part is not particularly long (just a quarter mile) or steep; the hike should be doable for most moderately active families, including fairly young kids (Abe complained, but he did fine). Once you’re down in the canyon, there are 9 different numbered areas to explore. We only made it to 1-5; if you do everything, it should be a 2.45 mile total hike (I’m not sure how they’re calculating it; there’s a lot of hiking out and back to see the different areas). It’s a slow kind of hiking, though, since there’s so much to explore; we thought we’d make it to everything, but it was getting late and we had to leave before seeing 6-9.
Keep in mind that you’ll be hiking in a creek bed and there’s usually some water in it, so wear shoes you don’t mind getting wet.
And give yourself more time than we did! Now we have to get back to see the rest:
Back up at the Visitor’s Center, we explored the small museum with exhibits about how the canyon formed and the plants and wildlife in the area. And Abe made a souvenir by putting different layers of sand in a glass bottle; like the walls of the canyon, you see.
After all that canyon hiking, we were ready for dinner. Lumpkin, Georgia is not really a hotbed of culinary adventure, but there is, somewhat mysteriously, a brewery a few miles away in Omaha, Georgia (called, less mysteriously, Omaha Brewing Company), so we headed over there for some beers and some food (mostly of the fried variety) from the food truck that in the parking lot that evening).
Phew! and there’s my very long post about our Jimmy Carter weekend. I’m super behind on this blog largely because of Christmas decorating season on the other blog, but I’ll be jumping back in with lots more about this past summer’s trip now (and a campground review to go with this post. And some talk about end of the year reflections/future plans/etc).
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