American Sabbatical 87: 4/7/97

Peanuts, Pecans, and Peaches

4/7... Pecans and peaches.

The work week dawned bright and crisp. Maybe in the low 60s. Peggy still insisted on a quick dip in the pool. She’d convinced the manager to let her use it last night, although they hadn’t put in “the right chemicals.” Or so they said. You get a runaround in a lot of these spas explaining why the pool isn’t open. Our check-in check-list is now as long as a preflight check. Nonsmoking rooms? AARP discount? Pool open? Check? The frog in the pool hadn’t read the sign.

We were going to prison today. Andersonville. Which had us cutting east by south from Columbus, and we were out of the urban thrumming in a wink. Georgia is just as attractive as Alabama, once you forsake the interstate, and we were so lulled by the red clay hills and tall timber that we missed our cutoff for the 1860s and ended up on the road to Jimmy Carter.

Red Dirt

In Richland the first signs of peanut farming rose up out of the furrows: tall silver barns with high-pitched peaks (we were listening closely) and fields full of colored nut wagons.. like deep children’s wagons with long tongues, only 8 feet tall. I pulled down a sidestreet to where they were pumping nuts into an 18-wheeler out of a galvanized warehouse. We made drawings like mad as yellow dust plumed out of the conveyor pipes and drifted to leeward. Another engaging industrial scene, and we can understand the fascination Sheeler and (less sympathetically) Hopper had for them. Maybe Thomas Hart Benson liked them best of all.

Peanut Packing


By now the sun was approaching the meridian, although we didn’t have a clue what the time was. We’d crossed and recrossed the time line, and daylight savings had kicked in. Is it still today? The local clocks say noon, so it’s time to eat. A handpainted billboard advertised sweet-potato pie at Mom’s Kitchen. Now.. we’re the kinda sports who’d play poker with a guy called Doc, so we stopped for pie at Mom’s.

Packing Peanuts


Boy, was that old saw ever wrong. If you’re ever in Preston, Georgia, stop for lunch at Mom’s. We went in through the kitchen screen door, where five women were sweating over the stainless, and were waved into the diningroom. Small formica tables crammed into your basic local diner. Primitive art on the walls, and homilies from The Good Book. Ten commandments. We joined the line at a crooked array of steam-tables, and dubiously slid our trays toward the entrees. Unfamiliar vegetables, thick gravy, steaks. But the menu on the chalkboard says Grilled Quail, so we decide to get one order, with double biscuits, iced tea, and two slices of that pie.

Everyone else is moving through like clockwork. Bailiffs from the county court across the road getting take-out. Elderly couples howareyooing each other. Field soiled farmers joking in dialect we can’t penetrate. Folks of all colors looking healthy and acting convivial. Including us in the banter when we ask about a stuffed bobcat on the wall. Telling us to watch out for the birdshot in our quail. Which takes forever to come. But the two men clearing table keep filling our tea glasses and making small talk so we don’t gnaw the furniture.

When it comes, the quail is fantastic. One serving is an entire bird, plenty for two, and the fresh pickled cabbage and black eyed peas are to live for. All for $8.49. Peggy goes out back to rave at the cooks, and they grin, like they already know that it’s just like home. At Mom’s.

It’s very refreshing to be in towns where there’s a mix of class, but everyone is black. Us Yankees are so used to enclaves of affluent blacks, or tokenism, and ghettos of urban black poverty. Here in Dixie class distinctions seem to be less extreme, and people of color fill all the roles. Where there are whites as well as blacks, the integration is thorough and easy-going. Mixed couples and squads of kids along the Chattahoochee, mixed clientele in all the stores and restaurants, and at Mom’s the black owners and crew are making all comers feel good about lunch. These are rural places, to be sure. No doubt we could find racial tension and defacto segregation in the cities. I remember the invisible lines in Norfolk. So is it a city thing? Too many rats in the cage? I think it would be a lot easier to be black in the rural South, or colorblind. I like it.

We liked Plains, Georgia, a lot, too. Jimmy’s hometown, and where he’s chosen to remain, is still a real town in peanut country. Sure his family has cashed in with Carter tourist traps. But they’re in the old main street stores, and are as downhome as you could want. The nut-washing rigs and storage buildings abut the railroad in the middle of town, in fact they ARE the town. Cultivation comes up to the few houses that are clustered here. A visitors’ center is a mile down the road, and you can pick up a free self-guided driving tour, but the places of personal interest are still private. Wave when you drive by.

Scene Sheeler

President Carter’s boyhood home is as unpretentious as the man himself, but it is next door to one of those pecan groves that inspire you to noble thoughts. If I turn up missing, look for me in a pecan grove. These are tall trees, mind you, sometimes 100 foot, spaced in cathedral rows, each branching widely from the base and reaching out like inverted cones in perfect gestures of supplication, covering acres. Their leaves are just spreading now, and the pasture grass beneath them is deep and glowing. I slow down as we pass each one, captivated, drawn into the dappled aisles.

(Memo #80)

April 7 Jimmy Carter’s Habitat

Who? President of the United State 1977-1981

What? his small hometown

Where? central western Georgia

When? Now

How? President's boyhood home and town are organized for tourists

Topics: homegrown presidents, president’s homes, tourism

Questions: What kind of hometown do presidents come from?

Heart of Plains

Plains, Georgia, is a very small town in the middle of rolling farmland. Groves of lovely pecan trees are interspersed with crop land and pine forests and dairy herds. In early April it was all a lush green and a mild breeze was blowing. The houses are low wood and brick bungalows with deep porches except for a few higher Victorians in the village. Each nearby town has a peanut warehouse and peanut “cars” that look like the trolleys in coal mines.

The signs for “Carter Historical Site” begin several miles outside of town, the houses thicken, then suddenly you’re in the village. Plains is small. There is basically one stretch of attached false front wooden stores with a long covered walk in front that looks, for all the world, like the set for a western movie. It is across a wide street from the now unused railroad station (identified as Carter campaign headquarters). On the other side of the tracks is the main road. A few side roads branch off it. Downtown is one block. The town is maybe four blocks square.

Nut Wagons

Roasted, boiled, candied, chocolate-covered peanuts are offered for sale. Carter’s uncle gives individualized tours. There is a self-guided car tour that we drove. We saw Carter’s elementary school, his church, his modest childhood home outside town, the graveyard with many Carters in it. The Carter compound is right downtown which surprised me. There is a fence around it and guarded gate and trees hide the house itself.

While Carter is the draw for tourists and there were several buses in Plains, we still got the feeling of a quiet, small town with a strong identity. Nurses were chatting outside the retirement home, people were sweeping their yards and unloading groceries from their cars.

During his 1976 campaign, Carter was identified as “the man from Plains”, a simple small town boy. Although he had become a nuclear engineer, an affluent farmer-businessman and experienced politician, he was cartooned as a hick who didn’t understand Washington. He was a man who avoided status symbols and the trappings of wealth, he liked to make furniture and he carried his own bags! He put his young daughter into public school in Washington D.C. He taught Sunday school while president! He was interviewed in Playboy where he admitted he had ”lusted after other women” IN HIS MIND, but was openly affectionate to his wife and young daughter Amy and three sons. The Playboy quote was greeted with the derision later heaped on Clinton for the comment that he smoked but didn’t inhale! Carter even gave talks on TV dressed in a cardigan. No one dug up any DIRT on Carter. His fault was that he was TOO moralistic, TOO idealistic, TOO religious. Too good?

The first indelible photo image of Carter was when he got out of the presidential limousine and walked hand in hand with his wife down the avenue during his inaugural parade. Rosalyn was designated “the iron magnolia”, a lovely, gracious, quiet woman whom, Carter admitted, he consulted on policy issues and allowed to sit in Cabinet meetings! Her ladylike demeanor deflected some of the interfering-woman-inappropriate First Lady behavior criticism which has been aimed at Hillary Clinton. Funny how the country forgets how involved Eleanor Roosevelt was in politics, or how the second Mrs. Wilson actually ran the country after her husband’s stroke.

Carter Compound
Carter was elected in 1976 when the country was recovering from Watergate and something different from politics as usual was needed. He seemed open and honest, totally unlike Nixon. Carter was president during the oil embargo, energy crisis, and Iran hostage incident. He lost the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan. I remember that he was quite often termed a ‘failure” as president in the media.

I could remember the Camp David Accord. What else had he done as president? The visitors’ center listed his presidential accomplishments: creation of a Department of Energy and Department of Education, deregulation of the transportation industry, passage of the Alaska lands Act (113.5 million acres), and the National Parks Act (which added 15 sites, among them Lowell Industrial Park and Seneca Falls, both sites I visited and enjoyed immensely). He created the Superfund for toxic waste cleanup, a Homeowners’ Tax Credit for weatherproofing and retrofitting houses. He negotiated the Salt 2 Treaty, the Panama Canal Treaty, and the Camp David Accords. He recognized the People’s republic of China. Lastly he negotiated the release of the Iran hostages (which took place several hour after he left office).

After 1981, he left politics and went back to Plains. He has quietly and effectively gone about the work he believes in. He is greatly involved with Habitat for Humanity, an organization with a huge headquarters nearby in Americus, Georgia, that builds and refits low cost housing for Americans, and has been photographed hammer in hand working on their projects. He has been an observer in many foreign elections for the U.N. He seems - in fact - quite like his hometown, quiet and unassuming and attractive, basically good.

Driving away from Plains I thought about the smalls towns which produce presidents. Hope, Abilene, Independence, Springfield, Quincey (Clinton, Eisenhower, Truman, Lincoln, the Adamses). In a small town, people know you. You learn people skills, you learn to maintain a network, you amass local knowledge, you practice small talk, you have to get along.

4/7.. contd.

After the drive-by, Red and his people carry on for Andersonville, admiring the scenery. The carrion birds hereabout are those hideously ugly red-headed vultures. We’ve discovered that the mounds of dirt by the road are made by fire-ants. The atmosphere takes on a less charming aspect. Or is that our historical imagination?


The Andersonville prison rides a high ridge and is totally exposed to the eyes of heaven. I was surprise to find it still an active military cemetery. In fact a funeral was in progress among the row after row of WWII and Korean War and Vietnam War graves. State monuments commemorating Civil War dead, with granite or bronze sculpture atop plinths, stand up among the regiments of marble headstones. A Parks Service crew was painting and waxing Wisconsin, but weren’t amused by my levity. So I came back to earth. The State of Georgia monument was of three prisoners in tatters supporting each other, and is dedicated to all prisoners of war, in whatever time and place. You can’t do better than that.

(Memo #81)

A Funeral at Andersonville
April 7 Andersonville

Who? Union soldiers, prisoners of war

What? infamous Civil War prison camp with huge mortality rate

Where? central Georgia

When? 1864-65

How? overcrowding, disease, malnutrition

Topics: POWs, Civil War

Questions: Why were conditions so bad at Andersonville?

All wars produce atrocities. All wars produce prisoners of war. All wars produce places where prisoners are kept - stalags or prison ships or compounds. What sets Andersonville apart from others, even in the Civil War, was the incredible number of deaths, almost 13,000 out of 45,000 prisoners. And in only fourteen months.


Andersonville is in central Georgia, a huge open clearing cut in the pine woods. Today there is a national graveyard adjacent to it. A funeral was going on in the new section. In the Civil War section the headstones touch, forming unbroken lines that stretch over huge expanses of lawn, testament to the hideous prisoner mortality. There are brick walls and statuary in the national cemetery, and a few monuments in the prison compound area. Two corners of the stockade have been reconstructed with “pigeon roosts” (guard towers) and the huge double gates. The outline of the stockade and the dead line (across which prisoners couldn’t venture) are marked by spaced white stakes. Mainly it is quiet open grassy land.

Andersonville was not designed as a death camp. At first no one expected the war to last, so POW camps were unnecessary. At the beginning of the war prisoners were released on “parole” (their oath that they wouldn’t fight again). In 1862 the Dix-Hill Cartel outlined exchanges of prisoners (the worth of a prisoner related to his rank). In April 1964 General Grant prohibited further exchanges feeling that they were prolonging the war (the North had ample manpower to spare, the South didn’t). He was partly to blame for Andersonville since his prohibition lead to the overcrowding of the existing camps.


Andersonville was constructed in central Georgia for several reasons: it was adjacent to a railroad line, remote from the front lines, in a warm climate, near an agricultural region which would provide food, and a forest which would provide building materials. And the tiny population would not effectively oppose the camp. Slaves cleared the forest and enclosed sixteen and a half acres with a stockade made of 20 foot high, foot diameter logs set five feet into the ground. There were fifty two guard towers. Ten thousand prisoners were supposed to live within those sixteen and a half acres. Eventually the stockade area was increased to twenty six acres, BUT over 33,000 men were crowded into that space during the camp’s peak!

Water and hygiene were major problems. A small stream went through the camp, but was polluted from the upstream guard camp and camp latrines. Prisoners tried to dig wells (some are still visible). The “Providence Spring” appeared after much prayer when a lightning bolt hit the ground. The spring is enclosed in a stone memorial shelter now. There was no fuel for the cold, no permanent shelter from the heat (which we felt even in early April), The prisoners made “shebangs” out of blankets and ponchos and clothing. Prisoners were to get a quarter of a pound of cornmeal and a half pound of bacon or beef a day. As the war progressed, scarcity in the South meant fewer rations. Deaths mounted from malnutrition, typhus, diarrhea, sunstroke. There were twenty-two hospital sheds eventually with fifty men in each, but the doctors had few supplies and improvised a great deal.


POW Memorial
The men kept busy with games (chess, checkers, dice, cards), storytelling, crafts. Some were taken out on work details (and managed to bring back firewood). Slightly over three hundred escaped, but most escapees were caught by the guard dogs. A few managed to created items for barter. There was also theft and violence as a group of inmates called “Raiders” took control of the camp. Guards and inmates banded together in response. The Union sergeants in camp tried the accused Raiders and six inmates were hanged by fellow Union soldiers for their crimes against other inmates.

When Andersonville was “liberated” at the end of the war, northerners were horrified by the reports of camp conditions and mortalities. The Assistant Superintendent of the camp Henry Wirz was tried in Washington and hanged for war crimes. When Southerners were attacked about Andersonville, they would counter with the names of infamous Northern POW camps (especially Rock Island, Illinois). In fact, the mortality rate of Southern POWs was 12%, of Northern POWS it was 15.5%. There were Civil war prison camps at Cahaba, Ala., Oglethorpe, Ga., Salisbury, S.C., Belle Isle, Va., Libby Prison, Va., Camp Butler, Il., Camp Douglas, Il., Camp Morton. Il., Johnson Island, OH., Camp Charles, OH., Elmira, N.Y., and Ft. Lookout, MD. I don’t know if any others are national historical sites.

Maine Memorial

Andersonville is a somber place. The great hillside bears few scars of the misery and death and there was a bright sun shining. But we still felt chilled. We drove north from Andersonville through the rolling farmland. Soon we saw a modern prison off to the left. There were round space age guard towers and the barbed wire on top of the high walls gleamed in the sun.


4/7.. contd.

After Peggy filled her notebook and laid hands on the hand-outs, we swung east and north, marching for the Ocmulgee Mounds outside Macon. But the misery of Andersonville is still spread on the landscape nearby. From the heights of the camp you can see two gigantic industrial complexes with smokestacks belching. Georgia Pacific and what looks to be a gypsum or cement plant. Then, just down the road, the Macon Penitentiary, with coils of razor wire atop the cyclone fences, space age guard towers, and a free-fire zone. Plus ca change...

Then the pecans sooth us again. And the PEACHES. Miles and miles of peach orchard. They don’t put those orange balls on the license plate for nothing. What it must be like in March, when they are all in bloom! Right now those vagrant imports, the chinaberries, are sweetening the air with their cloying perfume along every untended woodlot. I can’t figure if they were planed as ornamentals, or for some control purpose (their twigs and berries are toxic to some plants, and us), or if they have opportunistically leapfrogged along the roads just to scent the air.

Phone Home
Homeemade peach ice cream. Yes, M’am, we’ll have two. And isn’t it fine? With little chunks of fruit in every scoop. We sit on the peach factory rockers watching the sun scale down, trading pleasantries with two elderly black ladies, who say this is the best peach ice cream in the county. I could stand a lot of this. But I don’t have to stand too much more today. Ocmulgee has closed until tomorrow, and we sidle into Macon, looking for another pool and a friendly phone jack.

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