What A National Park Unit Can Teach You About President Jimmy Carter

Nov 30, 2018

The United States is home to over 400 “park units.” That’s right. “Park units,” not parks.   

There are 58 national parks in the United States - including the most-visited park and a world heritage site here in Western North Carolina, The Great Smoky Mountain National Park. However, the park service also manages national historic sites, national historic landmarks, battlefields, scenic rivers, buildings on the national historic register and much more. This variety of designations is what makes up the over 400 number. (Fun fact: The White House is also a park unit.)

 

These historic sites and landmarks range from represent anything that was important to America’s history and landscape. Here are a few examples: The Stonewall Inn in NYC, which was a National Historic Landmark before it became a National Historic Monument in 2016; Johnny Cash’s boyhood home in Dyess, Arkansas, which is a on the national historic register; The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad in Church Creek, Maryland;  The Trail of Tears, a national historic trail remembering the violent removal from the Cherokee from North Carolina to Oklahoma.

The childhood homes of America’s presidents are also often conserved and managed by the park service. One of the closest historical residences to Western North Carolina is 39th President Jimmy Carter’s hometown of Plains, Georgia

Alongside the rangers and employees of the park service who manage the sites in his hometown, there are a legion of volunteers. Each year over 250,000 Americans volunteer with the park service.

The Carters moved to this house on their 360-acre farm off Old Plains Highway in 1928.
Credit Lilly Knoepp

BPR visited two places at the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, his boyhood home and Plains High School, where he and his wife Rosalynn Smith both attended school.

 

Grace Gurney is a retired history teacher from upstate New York who is happy to be sharing the Carter’s legacy at their former high school. She’s living in Plains for her six month volunteer stint.

“I mean with a historical background who wouldn’t want to work in a historical place like this,” says Gurney, who works as a curator and at the front desk. “I went through the volunteer program for the parks service and when I saw this I was like,’ Oh  boy!’”

Grace O’Hara is an intern at the historic site. O’Hara just graduated from Penn State with a degree in anthropology and archeology. She’s living in Plains for her four month internship.

“Before I got to grad school and only benefit other academics, I thought that it would be a good idea to benefit the public with public preservation and public history,” says O’Hara.

 

Ranger Chris Mattingly is one of the permanent park guides at Jimmy Carter National Historic Site. He is a full time employee who has been working at the park since April.

“What we like to tell people when they are coming to visit us is not just about President Carter but also about this town and  what this building, Plains High School, meant to the community,” says Mattingly.

The park service has preserved his boyhood farm as well. The 360-acre farm which his family moved to in 1928 is where President Carter gets his reputation as the ‘peanut farmer president.’ During the Great Depression, most of the townspeople of Plains farmed cotton. As the price of cotton fell so did the fortunes of families in the area, says Mattingly. You can see firsthand where  President Carter learned his frugality from this area as well as the peanut fields he plowed with the family mules. You can also meet the current mules living on the farm, Bird and Belle.

“One of the last lessons that President Carter’s father and Mother imparted on him was that they could very easily be just like those other folks who were going from table to table and door to doo,” says Mattingly.

Both volunteers and Ranger Mattingly say that President Carter drops in at his old high school often to visit and share stories.

“Our main ranger says you can’t throw a cat in Plains without hitting a Carter,” says O’Hara.