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News / Life / Lifestyles

Christmas tradition lives on in Carter’s Plains, Ga.

By Ernie Suggs, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published: December 24, 2022, 6:43am
2 Photos
Jill Stuckey, the superintendent of the Jimmy Carter National Historical Park in Plains, Ga., says Christmas is a special time for year for the community.
Jill Stuckey, the superintendent of the Jimmy Carter National Historical Park in Plains, Ga., says Christmas is a special time for year for the community. (Ernie Suggs/Atlanta Journal-Constitution) Photo Gallery

PLAINS, Ga.—Early Tuesday morning, Ron Hobkirk, Brennan Morris and Henry Smith ventured out of the woods behind the old Jimmy Carter Boyhood Home carrying what would soon be a Christmas tree.

It wasn’t perfect, few are.

So they drilled holes in it and stuck branches from other trees in it to fill it out. It was part of a tradition that dates back nearly a century.

“Throughout the year, Daddy and I were on the lookout in our woods for a relatively rare wild red cedar that would make a good Christmas tree, one that was perfect in size and shape,” Carter wrote in his 2001 memoir “Christmas in Plains.” “My father was meticulous about its quality, and if there were unsightly gaps anywhere in the foliage we would drill a small hole into the tree trunk and insert an extra limb or two.”

“They wanted the tree to be perfect so they looked all year long for that perfect cedar tree,” said Jill Stuckey, the superintendent of the Jimmy Carter National Historical Park. “If it was not perfect, they would make it perfect.”

The tiny city of Plains, with all of its 736 residents, including a former president and first lady, is bustling this week ahead of Christmas.

President Carter and his wife Rosalynn are nestled warmly in the same Plains home they have lived in since 1961. They are not expected to go out, but family members will be coming here this weekend to celebrate the holidays with them.

“Christmas is the time the community comes together to celebrate and President Carter and Mrs. Carter are always a big part of that tradition here in Plains,” said Kevin Alexander, who has worked as a park ranger for 18 years and works as a blacksmith at the boyhood farm.

The Jimmy Carter National Historical Park will mark its 35th anniversary on Friday. Stuckey, who has been running it for more than three years, said she and the park field dozens of calls and texts daily about the Carters.

“I don’t mind,” said Stuckey, who visits the Carters daily. “It means they are not forgotten.”

At noon Tuesday the heart of what is Plains’ downtown was busy. Stuckey walked into The Buffalo Café for lunch and ordered a BLT with peanut butter. Her guest ordered a patty melt, which the cashier said was President Carter’s favorite. A man sitting nearby, wearing a camouflage hunting hat, put his fingers together in an OK sign to silently confirm how good the patty melt is.

After Stuckey sat down, her waitress came over to tell her that they were out of peanut butter, a fact that left Stuckey’s guest flabbergasted — in Plains.

A few doors down at Bobby Salter’s Plain Peanuts and General Store, the shop’s namesake was in the back holding court. Salter had a group of young men and a 92-year-old woman laughing at his stories. Each had a cone of peanut butter ice cream in their hand.

“This is about the only place you can get peanut butter ice cream, that is as good as this,” Salter said.

The space where Salter’s store is was originally purchased in 1942 by Carter’s father, James Earl Carter, to use as a warehouse.

Starting in 1975, Salter ran a little shop out of a service station belonging to the former president’s brother Billy. In 1989, Salter purchased the old Carter warehouse from the former president’s sister Gloria.

“I seen the good times and the bad times. The good times were right after President Carter was elected. The bad time was right after he got whupped and come on home,” Salter said. “Now, business is good.”

Locals and tourists are in and out of the store to pick up one of three delicacies — peanut brittle, fried peanuts, and of course, peanut butter ice cream.

All are secured under a secret recipe.

“A lot of people say they don’t like peanut butter, but they taste this ice cream and go crazy about it,” Salter said. “I started working on a recipe for a little over a year to get it where we are now. When we got to where we are now, I said we might as well quit.”

After her BLT and skipping the peanut butter ice cream because she said it was too cold outside, Stuckey drove down to the Boyhood Home to see the Christmas tree.

There is no electricity in the boyhood home, so it was chilly.

The tree was in the corner of the family room. Like when Carter was a child, it featured a perfect five-pointed star covered in tin foil and, as in his memoir, “long chains of circled and glued paper strips of different colors to be draped over the tree limbs.”

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