The few tourist buses that occasionally ramble down the street in the afternoon are half empty. Many of the fly-by-night entrepreneurs who converged on this small town in rural southwest Georgia last year have gone.
Sales at Hugh Carter's antique and souvenir shop are down, Billy Beer is not moving too well in one grocery store, and many of the people who do stop by are on their way to Florida.
It is sometimes cold and windy. Even President Carter, who told one townsman, "It always seems warmer (here) when you live as far up north as Washington," kept his hands in his pockets today and hunched his shoulders a bit to brace against the chilly 7:30-in-the-morning air as he walked through his town.
Still, coming home for Christmas seems to be a warming experience for Carter, who arrived here with his family Wednesday. Much of the hoopla and tacky tourist-trade hawking that piggybacked on his election 13 months ago is gone from his boyhood town.
As he stood warming his hands in front of an oil heater at Turner's Hardware and Department Store the President said "I wish nothing would change."
He patiently posed with townsfolk and visitors who wanted to take pictures, refused to sign autographs only because the Secret Service had asked him not to, and was given a few Christmas cards, which he said he would take home to his wife, Rosalyn.
Carter bought a hunting license for $4.25 at the Plains Pharmacy. "I haven't been shopping in so long. It's just amazing the way the prices have changed," he said as he stuffed the license into his wallet.
This afternoon, Carter spent about four hours quail hunting on a farm six miles west of the family home with a family friend, Frank Chappell.
An unofficial source said the President did shoot a number of quail but gave no futher statistics. Later tonight, the President was scheduled to go square dancing at a place near the family home.
The President was accompanied into most of the stores by only a single reporter, his press aide, and a few Secret Service men. Inside, the President was relaxed and often nostalgic.
He made his first lengthy stop at Turner's. He took time to write out a Christmas message to Ernest Turner's brother Lavon, who is in a nursing home in nearby Macon. "Merry Christmas and best wishes, from your old friend Jimmy Carter," the President wrote with a borrowed pen on a piece of notebook paper.
Before leaving the store, Carter said his mother, Miss Lillian, with whom the First Family had dined Wednesday night, was feeling "better now than she's ever been [in about 10 years]."
The President's uncle, Alton (Buddy) Carter, is ill, however, Carter was told when he got to Cousin Hugh's antique shop a few doors away from the hardware store. The 89-year-old uncle has been in still undiagnosed poor health for about two weeks. "I'm worried about Uncle Buddy," Carter said later. "He's really in bad shape."
Carter spent some of his time inside the stores peering at and fumbling through the various forms of tourist paraphernalia, which is perhaps nowhere in Plains more plentiful than at Cousin Hugh's.
"They've got all the Jimmy junk you want," son Chip remarked as his father looked at a shelf full of color photoraphs of the Carter family.
Hugh Carter said a recipe book titled "Plains Pot Pourri" was one of the best selling items along with a $2.50 blue and white tea cup and saucer, which has on it pictures of the President, the Plains Baptist Church, and Hugh Carter's antique store. "Now, your speech book, it don't sell too good," Cousin High informed the President.
Later, at a grocery store that is one of the three black-owned businesses in the city, the President asked owner Carl Thomas about sales of two kinds of lighters - one of which proclaimed that Plains is the home of Jimmy Carter, and the other of which notes that it is the home of Billy Carter. "Do you sell more of Jimmy Carter or Billy Carter lighters?" he asked. Thomas responded that the sales are about even.
This is the President's third over-night trip to his home town since he took office Jan. 20. He is expected to leave Monday, the day after Christmas, to return to Washington before embarking Dec. 29 to visit several foreign countries.
White House press aides have billed the visit here as a "no news" trip. The President appears to be living up to that promise. His 90-minute stroll through town, for example, was the highlight of today's presidential news.
The President will not be able to escape the news entirely, however. On Friday, hundreds of striking farmers are expected to converge on Plains protesting low farm prices. Carter said today that he is not sure if he will meet with them as he has so far declined to do.
He did discuss the farmer's plight with Cousin Hugh Carter Sr., a Georgia state senator and farm protest supporter. "As long as farmers let the consumers know they have got a problem," that is good, the President said "But if they ever turned the consumers against them, they will be worse off than they were before."
The President told reporters that we would do some reading, complete work on his budget totals for the 1979 fiscal year, and finish drafting an executive order reorganizing some of the nation's intelligence operations. When asked about major developing new stories - foreign oil prices and his embattled energy bill, for example - Carter's answers have been politely short and nondescript.