In Plains, crowds flock to see Jimmy Carter at peanut festival

Former President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter wave to a beauty queen during the Peanut Festival on Saturday September 26, 2015 in Plains. The consensus among Plains residents was that it was the largest crowd ever for the festival. Ben Gray /
Former President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter wave to a beauty queen during the Peanut Festival on Saturday September 26, 2015 in Plains. The consensus among Plains residents was that it was the largest crowd ever for the festival. Ben Gray /

Jimmy Carter looked delighted to not recognize large portions of his beloved hometown Saturday morning.

“Welcome!” the former president called down from the bunting-bedecked balcony of the Plains Historic Inn to thousands of people overflowing the sidewalks on Main Street. “How many of you, it’s your first time here in Plains?”

Throughout the crowd, attendees of the 19th Annual Plains Peanut Festival stopped, pointing their cell phone cameras up at Carter just long enough to wave their arms in giddy affirmation. Their loud cheers became roars in response to his shouted followup:

“How many of you are coming back next year?”

If he’s here, they will be too.

That’s life in a nutshell now in Plains, where a record-breaking crowd turned out for this year’s version of the town’s biggest annual event, the one where its biggest-name resident has traditionally served as energetic centerpiece. And this Saturday was no different, as Carter, who’s battling brain cancer and turns 91 on Thursday, seemed to be everywhere: Handing out dozens of running and school art contest awards; signing nearly 900 books, and waving to celebrities like Mr. Peanut and his 5-year-old grandson, Errol (daughter Amy’s youngest), as they passed by in the festival parade.

What was novel about this year: How many newcomers and bucket-listers had made the trek to Plains, obviously hoping to rub elbows with Carter while they still could.

“We’ve been talking about doing it forever,” said Rob Calder, who admitted that Carter’s uncertain health was a big reason he and his buddy, Jeff Humphrey, had driven overnight from Tampa to get here in time to snap photos with the ex-president in his worn blue jeans. “Last night, we just finally said, ‘Let’s go.’”

This is the new "new normal" in Plains, which first had to adjust to having a celebrity in its midst when Carter ran for president 40 years ago. To much of the world then, he was "Jimmy Who?" Tourists and the media flocked to southwest Georgia to take in the quaint, quirky place that had launched a political phenomenon.

On Friday night, Jan Williams, a close Carter friend who manages the Plains Inn, described those heady, early days to a tour group of festival VIPs riding along the block-long downtown.

“When we were famous,” Williams said, “every place on Main Street was either a souvenir shop or a place to eat.”

It was a quieter, more respectful brand of tourism that emerged once Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and word got out that he regularly taught Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church.

But these past six weeks have been something else again for Plains’s 700 residents, many of whom are close to Carter and admittedly rocked by his illness. His openness in discussing his cancer diagnosis isn’t just winning him legions of new admirers worldwide. It’s also sending visitors flocking to Plains, a place the locals all love and want to see prosper — just so long as it’s not asking too much of their Jimmy.

“We’re never going to attempt to exploit our president,” said another close friend, Jill Stuckey, who serves on the city council. “But we also try to be nice to all the tourists and try to keep them coming back.”

Right now, it’s more a matter of trying to keep things under control. The Plains Inn is fully booked on weekends through March 2016 and bookstore sales at the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site here have increased tenfold on weekends in the past month. So many more people than can fit into Maranatha’s 470 seats (that includes folding chairs set up in a meeting room) keep showing up for Sunday school that the church has had to create a pre-ticketing system.

On this particular Sunday, people started lining up as early as 4:30 a.m. to be assured of getting into Sunday school. No one was turned away on this drizzly morning and the approximately 375 students (including a large group in the overflow room) were rewarded by hearing Carter’s thoughts on Pope Francis.

“I think he’s a good man,” Carter said, adding that some of the pontiff’s speeches in the U.S. this week “spelled out what Jesus would do.”

Carter also outlined his own upcoming schedule which showed that cancer has done little to slow him down. On Monday, Carter said, he heads to New York for meetings with Cuban President Raul Castro and with Venezuela’s president related to the Carter Center’s efforts to combat river blindness. On Tuesday, he heads back to Atlanta for his third round of cancer treatment. The fourth treatment “will be delayed awhile because Rosalynn and I are going to Nepal” on a November Habitat for Humanity build, he said.

Meanwhile, attendance at Saturday’s Peanut Festival appeared to blow away the previous high of 6,000 people, said Mill Simmons, chairman of Plains Better Hometown, the nonprofit that runs the event and restores and operates historic buildings here.

Other Georgia towns, like Blakely and Sylvester, have their own peanut festivals. What they don't have is Carter, whose presence here helps attract big-name sponsors, like Planters and Jif, plus offshoot events like the annual Carter Political Items Collectors convention (Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter attended Saturday night's banquet at a Quality Inn in nearby Americus).

Even before Carter got sick, festival organizers had decided to put a five-book limit this year on the people who line up hours early for his signing held in his late brother Billy’s gas station.

“It was getting out of hand,” said Simmons, noting that people sometimes showed up with wagons full of books. “It’s a monumental task he’s taking on and we do not want to tire him out.”

Once Carter went public with his diagnosis, organizers wondered if the book signing was even still a good idea.

“We ran it by him and he said he wanted to do it,” Simmons said about Carter, who extended his scheduled one-hour session by 20 minutes Saturday and wound up signing 895 books (also a festival record). “We’re always going to ask him what he wants to do and when he wants to do it, and that’s always going to be his decision.”

Well, maybe not always.

Three days after the remarkable August press conference where Carter discussed his cancer diagnosis, nearly 1,000 visitors showed up at Maranatha Baptist for his Sunday school class. He volunteered to teach back-to-back sessions at two different locations and pose for photos, after which he clearly was exhausted. Enter Jan Williams, his good friend and fellow Maranatha member who bluntly told him, "You're not doing that again."

Every week since then, church members have monitored area hotel reservations and held meetings to figure out how best to handle the next Sunday’s crowd. The pre-ticketing system, which began at 12:01 a.m. Sunday one weekend and 1 p.m Saturday on another, has worked fairly well. But church members have to be there the whole time, which was one reason Maranatha decided to cross its fingers and abandon the ticketing system this weekend.

“We’re an aging church population,” said Stuckey. “It’s difficult on some of us to either stay up all night or be there at 4 a.m. handling crowds in the parking lot.”

Another, more practical, reason they did it? Many Maranatha members were too busy Saturday helping out with those record crowds at the Peanut Festival.

That’s just the new new normal here.