I was ten years old when Jimmy Carter was elected the 39th president of the United States. It was the first presidential election that I can recall; my democrat Baptist parents were excited about the election and he even had a daughter my age that lived in the White House. All of these factors made a huge impression on me as a child. As an adult I have read several of his books and admired his work for peace and humanitarian efforts. Several years ago I learned that President Carter teaches Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. For years I have mentioned the desire to travel to Plains to Sunday school but the time has never been right, until now.
My husband and I decided to celebrate/commiserate our newly empty nest by taking a little winter vacation, something that has not been possible due to kid’s schedules for quite some time. We debated a Caribbean cruise and a trip to Mexico but during a discussion my husband mentioned that since I have always talked about Sunday school in Plains and how President Carter is not getting any younger, that he thought now was the time.
It didn’t take long to locate the Presidents Sunday school schedule and to book a Saturday night stay at the only hotel in Plains, the Plains Historic Inn. We planned on a February trip but thankfully by booking at the inn I had the inside scoop on President Carters’ schedule change. Miss Jan, the inn manager, called to inform me of the schedule change on Wednesday, January 11, and it quickly became apparent that if I was going to take this trip before Spring I needed to be in Sunday school the following weekend on Sunday, January 15. We worked out our schedules and decided to go. This felt quite spontaneous to us since we are usually detailed planners!
We got out the map to see what we could visit on the way to Plains. My husband noticed that we would be going through Tupelo, Mississippi where Elvis was born and we both recognized Montgomery, Alabama as the home of the Rosa Parks. Memphis was also a city that we would be traveling through and Graceland has always been on my list of “things I want to see”. I have to admit that a lot of the appeal in saying I wanted to see Graceland was to hear my husband sigh and to see him roll his eyes at me. Our memories of Elvis are of his later years when he was overweight and not so cool, but Elvis fans or not, Graceland is a piece of “Americana”!
We planned to leave our home in northeastern Oklahoma early on Friday morning and return Monday evening but when getting off work on Thursday night, we decided once again to be spontaneous and drive as far as possible that evening to get a head start on the long day in store Friday. We drove several hours to Clarksville, Arkansas where we stopped in a Holiday Inn Express. Nice, clean and reasonably priced.
I am not a morning person but was excited to be on the way at 6:00 am on Friday. We took the exit at Tupelo for lunch and decided to drive by Elvis’ boyhood home. The site consists of a museum, garden, the house Elvis grew up in and the church that he sang in as a child. There is a charge for the museum and to see the interiors of the buildings. We chose to walk around the exteriors and take a few photos. Tupelo is marketing Elvis quite well so with no effort we also saw the drive in that he frequented as well as the hardware store where he purchased his first guitar. We always try to eat local on trips and enjoyed a salad/sandwich at Danvers’s. We also stopped in a couple of flea markets and antique stores and then got back on the highway. If you are an Elvis fan Tupelo would be a great destination.
Although I was trying hard to be spontaneous I couldn’t quite accomplish it and did book a hotel in Montgomery for Friday night. I read good reviews of the Hampton Inn which is located in downtown Montgomery. This Hampton is in a historical building which I thought would be interesting and had the right price and location. The lobby was really nice and our corner room had two walls of windows and a huge walk in shower. A Trip Advisor review had mentioned noisy elevators and brick wall views so when reserving online I requested a room away from the elevator with a view. That paid off. Unfortunately we were too tired to walk to one of the nearby restaurants or clubs. Saturday morning we woke up early and enjoyed a free Hampton breakfast.
We had several sites to visit and all were very close to our hotel. Our first stop was the First White House of the Confederacy. Since we were short on time we planned on just stopping for a quick photo of the house but as we were doing so, a very friendly Confederate soldier stepped out on the porch and called for us to please come in. Of course we could not resist a personal invitation. The house was moved to its present location near the state capital, restored, and furnished all due to the efforts of local Montgomery women. It was quite impressive the amount of original furniture and personal effects of Jefferson Davis and his family that are displayed. We were really glad we took the time to take a self guided tour.
Next stop was a quick photo op at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church which is also located in the state capital area. Since we were there on a Saturday morning we were able to drive around the capital area with no traffic. It was very impressive.
A few more blocks and we arrived at the Rosa Parks Museum and Library. The museum was opened in 2000. That was a shock to us that such an important part of history was only commemorated by a sidewalk sign until so very recently. We were familiar with the heart of Ms. Parks’ story but learned a great deal through the videos and displays of the museum. The whole experience was very touching. There were several times that I had to consciously hold back tears and honestly when I walked out I felt embarrassed to be white. Ms. Parks is an inspiration and this museum is a “not to be missed” if you are anywhere near Montgomery, Alabama.
Our next stop was Tuskegee, Alabama where we visited the Tuskegee Airmen Museum. We didn’t linger long but this is a nice museum and if you were specifically interested in aviation history then I am sure it would be even better.
We arrived in Plains about four in the afternoon. We enjoyed the stops on the way but I was very excited to reach our destination. We immediately came across signs for President Jimmy Carter’s boyhood farm. We stopped in and took a look at President Carter’s very humble beginnings. When we arrived in downtown Plains it was interesting to see the train station that housed the campaign headquarters, the high school that President Carter attended, and Billy Carter’s gas station. We enjoyed strolling around and taking several photos.
It was easy to locate the Plains Historic Inn which is located on Plains one block long Main Street. The inn is on the upper story of a two story brick building; the lower floor is an antique mall. It doesn’t get better than this! We were greeted by the innkeeper Miss Jan, who took us on a tour of the inn where we learned that President and Mrs. Carter were instrumental in renovating and decorating the inn. Our stay at the Inn could not have been better. The location is perfect, the rooms are interesting and fun, and having the opportunity to visit with Miss Jan is priceless. We were surrounded by true southern hospitality and I will always treasure the memory of staying there!
The highlight of our trip began when we arrived at Maranatha Baptist Church on Sunday morning. I would have been concerned about seating when arriving at the church if Miss Jan had not assured us that we would be her special guests for the service. The church holds about 200 people and on the Sunday we attended even the choir loft was used for guest seating due to the crowd. We were seated in our second row pew and proceeded to enjoy the experience. Miss Jan entertains the crowd with her expectations of the audiences’ behavior. She is not someone you want to disappoint
President Carter’s arrival in the chapel is very symbolic of his personality. He requests that no one stand or applaud. He opened the class by asking where everyone is from. Many states were represented as well as several countries. My husband stated that we were from Oklahoma and it was exciting to have him acknowledge us. Although he is currently 87 years old you would never know that by his speaking! He is obviously very intelligent and gave a very interesting lesson that incorporated his current work concerning free elections in Egypt into the bible lesson. There is a short break between Sunday school and church and then President and Mrs. Carter returned to the sanctuary for church service. I was in awe when they were seated directly behind us. What a unique experience to worship with a former President and First Lady.
After church the Carters are so gracious to take a photo with each group or individual that attends. It was so exciting to have the opportunity to speak with them for a moment and of course the photo is the number one keepsake from our trip. The whole experience will be a treasured memory!
We had a long drive ahead of us but did stop in Americus at the Andersonville Prisoner of War Camp which is just a few miles outside of Plains. Very sobering historical site but we were glad that we stopped in the museum and took a drive through the grounds.
We wanted to drive as far as possible on Sunday to give us time in Memphis on Monday. We made it to Tupelo about midnight and had to stop for the night. We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn which was great. The hotel was new and nice. The next morning when I called the front desk to inquire if they provided a complimentary breakfast they said that breakfast was not included in the room rate but that they would happily include it for us, more of that southern hospitality.
We arrived at the Graceland ticket booth as the doors were opening at 10:00 am. It was fun to see all of the signage in the different languages but less fun to see the prices of tickets. We purchased the ticket option which included the car and airplane museums which was expensive, about $70 each. This would be the one and only time we would be at Graceland so decided to go for it, but I thought the ticket prices were outrageous!
We stepped back in time and spent a couple hours touring all things Elvis. We walked away with a new appreciation of Elvis’ career as well as a new appreciation for the type of man he was, his love of family, and his generosity.
Unfortunately, after Graceland we needed to head home and did not get to experience more of Memphis. The National Civil Rights Museum is still on my list of “things to do” so hopefully we can head that direction again sometime.
As we chatted with people on the trip I heard my husband refer to the trip as a “bucket list trip” for his wife. I am very appreciative that I can check off my dream of attending Sunday school in Plains off my bucket list. We both had a great time doing so!!
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