By Becca Milfeld
For residents of the rural hamlet of Plains, Georgia, there is only one thing more beloved than its famed crop the peanut, and that is Jimmy Carter.
The former US president and native son has put the town and its nearly 600 residents on the map, luring tourism dollars as well as swarms of reporters throughout his life, especially at times of his major achievements: the Nobel Peace Prize, his 75th wedding anniversary, visits by dignitaries such as Joe Biden.
Now, at age 98 and in hospice care, having lived longer than any other US leader, Carter is earning the love of his community as his final days near.
“President Carter will be alive in Plains forever,” longtime resident Philip Kurland told AFP from behind the counter of his souvenir shop, located in a building on Main Street once owned by Carter’s uncle.
“I think it’s important to know how involved he was in the community — you could not go to a meeting without him or Rosalynn being involved,” Kurland said of the ex-president and his wife.
His store is part of the one-block downtown where an enormous sign atop an old-timey storefront boldly welcomes visitors to “Plains, Georgia home of Jimmy Carter, our 39th president.”
Located in America’s peanut belt, Plains is the sort of place where visitors can sink their teeth into a peanut ice cream or boiled peanuts, then head along dusty roads to discover endless fields and farms of the cash crop.
As omnipresent as the peanut is, Carter is ubiquitous in Plains. His boyhood peanut farm as well as his high school are part of the National Park Service.
So is a train depot that served as his 1976 campaign headquarters, where his various primary victories and then presidential conquest were celebrated.
Carter’s modest home, where he is receiving hospice care, is just a two-minute drive from downtown, although visitors are blocked by a sturdy fence and a contingent of Secret Service.
It too, has already been bequeathed to the National Park Service, and is where the president and his wife of 76 years are designated to be buried.
Around the corner, at the far less touristy Dollar General, locals such as Kelvin Sims shop for groceries — sometimes alongside the Carters, whom he onetime heard playfully quibbling about canned tuna.
“I consider him as my homeboy because that’s the kind of vibe he gave everyone,” the 47-year-old said of Carter, as he stood outside the one-story brick building, his black vintage Chevrolet parked nearby.
Sims said his grandmother, Rosa Brown, used to look after the Carters’ grandchildren.
“He came to the neighborhood, he tells the Secret Service y’all stay back, him and his wife both.”
As per Carter’s death: “We all know that that day had to come. It gotta come for everyone, but we didn’t think that Jimmy Carter had a date, because he was our hero,” he said.
Carter’s friend Jan Williams got to know the president particularly well when she taught his daughter Amy fourth grade in 1976.
More recently she has helped marshal the crowds that would come to see Carter preach Sunday school at his church, Maranatha Baptist, welcoming throngs of visitors well into his 90s.
‘OK with leaving’
The low-lying red brick church with a white steeple is set against a backdrop of pecan trees on a road heading out of town.
In his last sermon, Carter made clear he was “very OK with leaving this world,” Williams told AFP at the church.
“Hospice is a scary word, it’s almost equal to the word death. And he is not there,” she added, estimating that the man who beat brain cancer in his 90s will be around for a bit longer still.
Just up the road from Maranatha Baptist is an iconic 13-foot (four-meter) peanut statue brought to Plains after a 1976 presidential rally in Evansville, Indiana.
It smiles broadly with the unmistakable toothy grin of Jimmy Carter, from a grassy patch outside a gas station, N&K Food Mart.
One lonely bouquet of pink flowers has already been placed at its base, as if in remembrance of a president who is not yet gone.
Inside the store, owner Narjis Bhatti explains how Carter’s son Chip helped her with the loan to purchase the shop, seemingly carrying on in his father’s footsteps as the ex-president became less visible around town in recent years.