A city slicker could make some big mistakes sizing up Albert Williams in his green work shirt and beatup tractor hat chewing on a cigar.
Like another peanut farmer from around here, Williams is rich and he is sly. Ask him how much he makes and Williams says, "I ain't gonna tell you." His eyes narrow "All I know is I can't make $130,000 a year - and pay but $17,000 in taxes like a certain person did."
Williams was referring to President Carter's 1975 tax return which showed he paid $17,484 on a gross income of $136,138.
Williams seldom hides his lack of friendship with Carter, his chief local business competitor. Williams neither cheered nor aided in Carter's march to the White House.
But now, for Williams, there is sweet revenge. The Williams clan - Albert, his brothers and their four sons - lease out or run half the tourist attractions in town. They have turned an old peanut warehouse that used to store fertilizer into two souvenir stores, "The Peanut Patch" and "The Peanut Museum."
In addition, Albert Williams has brought in most of the out-of-town entrepreneurs, prompting Carter supporters to snipe, "The very one who hates Jimmy is making big money off him."
The Williams clan is not alone in the financial "Greening of Plains."
Now, it draws such exotics as Russian tennis stars and America's Chris Evert. Bleachers to seat 4,000 went up around the Lions court for a regularly scheduled match between the Phoenix Racquets and the Soviets in World Team Tennis on Saturday. Big Bad Billy Carter hit a few with Chris - a very few. As a Plains match organizer said, "Billy doesn't know a whole lot about tennis."
A barely known crossroads town with nine Main Street buildings by the railroad tracks just a year ago, the original Plains today is beginning to look like a prop for the engulfing souvenir shops, barbecue shacks, overnight campgrounds, and trains and trams with tooting whistles and clanging bells, hawking the Plains version of the Hollywood star tour.
For $2.50 you get a 30 minute rubber nceking glimpse of such highlights as the Secret barricaded President's home, Miss Lillian's famed Pond House behind a new padlocked chainlink fence, Billy Carter's home - a house distinguished by its ordinariness, except for the "No Stopping, No Turning Around" sign - and the town water tank painted to look like the American flag.
One lucrative venture is run by the Plains Realty Co. an Atlanta based outfit that rents an office from Williams, who gets a percentage of the profits. They bought five acres of land from a local farmer for $3,000. They're now reselling it in $11-per-square-inch souvenir slices and stand to make millions. Some 10,000 plots have been sold to date. A dollar per inch of each sale goes back to the city of Plains.
Across the street from the realty office, Williams also leases out a plot of ground on which is parked one of the tour trams from Savannah - brought to Plains in such haste that it still has the Savannah skyline painted on its side.
Williams' old filling station is now owned by an Arlington, Ga., conglomerate and is one of the several novelty stores - home of the "official" presidential thermal mug, Carter plaques and plates, ceramic peanut ashtrays, mother-of-pearl peanut necklaces. So many peanuts are sold around town - fried and boiled, in icecream and pie - that some are now shipped in from out of state. One can only wonder what would have happened had the President manufactured ball bearings or hub caps.
Schlock is exalted in the "Jimmy Carter rubber bottle opener," a vague facsimile of his head. His grinning mouth opens the bottle cap, a plug opens in the back of the head through which you can remove the cap. It is made in Japan. It sells for $3.99 at most Plains stores. Cousin Hugh Carter sells it for $4.50.
Cousin Hugh justifies his higher prices at his antiques and souvenir store because he figures he is a valuable commodity now that Miss Lillian no longer signs autographs. Billy is out of town most of the time and the rest are in washington or in hiding. "Me and my daddy are the only two Carters you can get to here," says Hugh, signing an autograph. He was busy buying unpainted wood picture frames, fancied up with curlicues, to resell for $9.95. As he slipped the picture of Jesus Christ out of one sample frame and inserted a color picture of Jimmy Carter. Cousin Hugh said, "I think it'll sell, don't you?"
The tourists greeted with open smiles and cash registers are oblivious to the upheaval, the downright - sxhizophrenia all this change is producing in the folks of Plains.
Many, cashing in on trinkets and out-of-sight and sales, are afraid the boom will stop. They pray that a current lull in trade - off at least 50 per cent from the 3,000-per-good-Saturday a month ago - is just a slump between Florida bound or departing winter tourists and a summer crowd. Other citizens not in on the tourist trade, complain that "you can't hardly get to the post office no more."
Still other Plains people are happy to cast off an insular life to trade talk with tourists from Tokyo and Ottawa and Cleveland. The most concerned want to halt tackiness, but see the commercial inevitability of the next four, or possibly eight years. In some cases, spitefulness, jealousy and, as Arlington, Ga., entrepreneur Albert Newberry said, "a dog eat dog" competitiveness has surfaced.
Various tours knock each other. "Why he don't even show the home of Miz Allie," (Rosalynn Carter's mother) sniffed one woman driver of another tour, clanging the bell of the Peanut Express, with a presidential seal on its side. One restaurant owner whispered to a customer that another owner didn't really make "home made" pies as advertised.
A special resentment is reserved for the world's most celebrated good ole boy, Billy Carter. Other merchants, fearing that Billy's page one comments have helped drive away tourists, grumble, "Billy complains about what's happening to his town and yet he's hauling it in as fast as he can." There are his $10,000, appearances the gasoline he sells (at times, 10 cents a gallon higher than in nearby Americus) and the beer (tourists cherish the cans). In addition, Billy leases a plot of prized land for the "Carter Country Tours" to park their buses on and gets a percentage of the profits.
As speculators dream of even more rural sprawl, there is a gold rush feverishness to the talk. A wax museum and two more souvenir shops are imminent. An amusement park, a Ramada Inn on the outskirts of town and cottages called Pond Houses "a la Miss Lillian" are prospects. If the citizens of Plains would only agree to rezone some downtown property commercial, figures Americus realtor James Dalton, "the land I sold to a rich woman doctor from California would be just the spot for a McDonalds."
The city council, which used to meet once a month, now often meets three times a week to take up requests for new buildings, signs, gimmicks. One night recently, it turned down one man's request to sell honorary Plains citizenships. "Looks like he's looking for his one chance to get some easy money instead of working hard like the rest of us," said Mayor A.L. Blanton.
The mayor directs flights at nearby Albany airport and off hours cuts hair in the one chair barber shop - behind the space he rented out to the Kountry Korner Krafts cafe and novelty shop. Things haven't been the same for Blanton since the "Today" show filmed him cutting hair. His wife regrets he doesn't have more time to devote to it. "I reckon there's plenty tourists who would pay to have the mayor of Plains cut their hair," she said.
The council frankly worried about controlling Plains, and their sentences are studded with such comments as, "We've gonna look like Atlantic City boardwalk," and "the town's gonna be a junkyard."
Boze Godwin, town druggist and mayer protem who handles council matters when Blanton's busy landing planes, explained their chagrin. "These tour services got slap out of hand before we got off our tails. The city clerk issued permits without our knowledge - but we set him straight." One tour, finally outlawed for sanitary reasons, was a mule-driven team.
One council member, looking over plans for a new novelty store, said, "I don't much care for it." But the prospective owner was a local, and they wanted to help him out. The applicant nodded agreement as the council member asked, "Couldn't you put a porch on it and put a rocker on it? You know, give it an 'olden'-type face?"
The city council has no control over anything built outside the one-mile circular limit. For example, Maxine Reese, Carter's Plains' campaign manager, who lives just outside the city limits, is busily turning her yard into a parking lot for recreation vehicles, and adding a grocery and package liquor store.
"For Sale" signs dot Rte. 280 on a 10-mile strip from Americus to Plains. The city of Plains tried to get the county to impose some zoning on that land, but the surrounding farmers said no one was going to tell them what to do with their property.
Faye's Barbecue - the celebrated care in a double-width trailer that became a social headquarters for national reporters and visiting celebrities like Vice President Mondale and Barbara Walters - moved from Americus down the strip to a spot five miles out of Plains. Realter Dalton figures Faye's new location will attract other buyers to Rte. 280, but adds gloomily, "Right now there are more people interested in selling than buying. I sure hope it's just seasonal."
Dalton is comforted by some big past sales. Four Toronto businessmen bought 190 acres of farm land. "1,200 feet from Jimmy's front door." Dalton sold it to a farmer for $50,000 in 1970. The Canadians paid $325,000. Harry Zahoruk, a Toronto attorney, says their plans are vague but insists that whatever they do will be a class act - "no Los Vegas" - with boating, a museum, cottages perhaps. Dalton said he heard the development will be called "Jimmy's Back Yard."
Another Canadian paid $58,500 for a home that once belonged to Jimmy Carter's grandparents. It sold for $10,000 two years ago. And Leslie J. Campbell, an Ottawa businessman, bought two shacks on a side street a half block off Main, to build his Wax Museum.
Most merchants feel it is not only financially astute but their civic duty to be nice to tourists - and reserve their resentment for the press. When one reporter asked how much buildings rented for, one merchant said, "None of your damn business."
The turmoil over past segregation policies of the President's hometown Baptist Church has divided the whites but, ironically, the blacks say, it barely touches them. Paul Thomas, owner of Thomas' grocery and one of two blacks who own businesses here, said "We have our own church," and claimed no blacks in Plains would want to go to the all-white church. Charles Hicks, a black who spent $3,000 to turn his Skylight Club tavern into a restaurant for the mostly white tourists trade, says, "The segregation here is by choice."
Black youths wearing Jimmy Carter T-shirts cluster together on Main street. One, shouting to a friend, hollered an improbable greeting in this Southern town - "Hey, Kunta Kinte!"
His knowledge of Alex Haley's "Roots" is a reminder of how television today can create global celebrity villages - like Haley's Juffure in the Gambia and Carter's Plains in Georgia, which both now attract world travelers.
It is not just that Plains is the hometown of the President, although its small town image, was as good as a log cabin for an aspiring unknown candidate, was exploited by Carter more than other hometowns have been in the past. People saw Plains and the Carters on television and it all became as familiar, as "real" as the Waltons. By the time tourists reach Plains, it's as if they are visiting a familiar land. As one woman said the other day, "I'd like to see Billy. They said on TV that all you had to do is walk down the street and you'd see him."
Moreover, Plains - despite clanging tours and Jimmy bottle cap openers - confirms a reverred Horatio Alger view of American politics. Over and over visitors voice such documentary - style sentiments as "To think a man could come from such a small place and reach the highest office in the land."
The Sumpter County Chamber of Commerce says 85 per cent of the Plains' tourists are on their way to or from Florida. Like most Americans, they accept commercialism as a way of life. They accept and prize peanut dee-gaws as they accept and prize "handmade" cookoo clocks in Swiss Alp villages and "genuine" mini balls outside Gettysburg.
If anyone is to blame for the change in Plains, it's a two-way street, argue the locals.
"Two days after Jimmy was elected, people started swamping the place. There was nothing here.They were taking away rocks or anything that said "Plains" on it," said Mrs. A. V. Magio, sitting in the tin shed next to her carport, now a coin and souvenir shop. She etches "Plains, Ga." on the side of beer cans brought over from Billy Carter's next door gas station. ("Your can, 25c, my can, 50c")
"Sure we're making a few dollars but we're also entertaining these people. If we didn't do anything for them," she said, "they'd go away feeling cheated."