In Jimmy Carter’s hometown, a train brings well wishers



PLAINS — Lisa Powell Humphries lives just a little more than an hour south of Jimmy Carter’s hometown of Plains, but she’d never been.

Then, on Feb. 18, came the announcement that Carter was entering home hospice care. A few days later, the 57-year-old Georgian and her husband bought tickets on the SAM Shortline excursion train to Plains.

“My dad thought Jimmy Carter was better than peanut butter,” Powell Humphries said. “I just wanted to come before something happened to him, and bring them,” she added, indicating two teenage granddaughters.

On a misty Saturday just before noon, the vintage train cars pulled up alongside the depot that once served as Carter’s presidential campaign headquarters. Carter has been among the most ardent supporters of the train, a tourism attraction that brings about 25,000 passengers annually through Plains and other towns in southwest Georgia.

“Without President and Mrs. Carter there would be no SAM shortline,” said Lee Kinnamon, chair of the Southwest Georgia Railroad Excursion Authority.



On Saturday, people popped in and out of the shops in Plains, but the sidewalks weren’t quite bustling until the train pulled up and about 140 people disembarked. The train runs one or two days a week and sometimes serves up to 300 passengers, said conductor Gary Gosa, a volunteer since 2009. Many of the TV trucks and reporters who descended on Plains a week ago to report the news of Carter’s worsening health had departed.

Carter helped boosters of the train idea navigate the state legislative process. The first public train ride happened in 2002.

Kinnamon knew he had to be on his game whenever the former president attended organizational meetings.

“He wanted to know all about the train: What the numbers were, what our timeline was. He’s a chief executive and behaved like that,” said Kinnamon. “I’ve always told people you don’t go into a meeting with him unprepared. It will not be a good thing.”



The excursion train runs between Cordele and Plains, roughly 40 miles apart, rolling past pecan groves, peanut farms and cotton fields.

Some passengers came this weekend specifically because they wanted to pay tribute to Carter. Others, such as Troy and Rhonda Wall of Orange Beach, Alabama, had planned their trips weeks in advance. The retired couple boarded the train in Cordele. It stopped briefly in Americus, and then longer in Plains to give riders a chance to explore.

“What we’ve noticed, small towns across the country, if they don’t have a niche, they’re dying. By niche, this is it: President Carter,” said Troy Wall.

Powell Humphries’ father was a peanut farmer. Her husband, 63-year-old Steve Humphries, hauled peanuts as a truck driver. They both praised Carter on Saturday in downtown Plains.

”He’s probably the most honest president we’ve ever had,” Powell Humphries said.



Fellow passengers Chuck Miller, 52, and Vonda Richardson, 53, grew up in Fort Valley, where Miller said Carter was “our childhood hero.” Richardson voted for him in 1976 — in a first-grade mock election. They bought the train tickets a week before Carter entered hospice care.

The timing of their trip made Miller feel “sad, yet fulfilled.”

Kinnamon, the mayor of Americus, about 10 miles east of Plains, marveled at how fluidly Carter moved between worlds. He could launch an international effort to eradicate Guinea worm disease and also worry about passenger counts on the local excursion train.

“Not everyone can do that, and I would argue that it takes humility to do that,” said Kinnamon.