Historic Structures

Billy Carter Gas Service Station, Plains Georgia

Date added: July 15, 2021 Categories: Georgia Commercial

During Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign in 1975-76, much attention was lavished on this service station, then owned by his colorful and outspoken younger brother, Billy. He considered his station a social rather than a business venture and it served as a hangout for his "down home fraternity," where men would gather to drink beer and shoot the breeze after work. The media capitalized on the service station as a symbol of Jimmy's rural southern upbringing. The building was maintained in its run-down, informal state and became a stronghold for the local residents who were disenchanted with the drastic changes taking place in Plains with Carter's ascendancy to the White House. Billy used it as the headquarters for his unsuccessful campaign as the "No Progress" candidate for mayor of Plains.

In the 1920-30s, the service-station lot was the site of a large, two-story hotel used by many people who came to Plains for treatment at the Wise Sanitarium. Records show that the hotel and property were owned by Burr Thaddeus Wise, one of the hospital's founders, and during its years of operation had several different managers, including Ernest and Rosa Dean, a Mr. Aiken, Walter Kennedy and Flora Markette Kennedy. The hotel was torn down sometime between 1937-48 and the property was left vacant until 1956 when Mill Jennings (1909-72) opened his Amoco Service Station there. He first owned a service station in a wood building on the west end of the Main Street business block, but he wanted to move his business to a busier street. He purchased the frame structure from the Jones Sprinkler Company (now the Jones Piping Company), which had been in operation in Plains since 1933, and moved it to the "hotel lot." The building was originally built by the Jones family for their daughter who used it as a practice room for ballet.

Billy Carter (1937-88) purchased the station in 1972, and installed castoff furniture in the storage area and a cooler that was always full of beer. He barely cleared a profit on gasoline sales and repairs, but saw the station as the mainstay of his social life in Plains. When he got a license to sell beer, many in the Southern Baptist town balked, although men had been gathering at local service stations to drink and socialize ever since Jimmy Carter was a child, as he vividly recounted in Why not the Best? During Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign, tourists and the media flocked to the station to meet Billy, who was becoming a celebrity in his own right for his offbeat humor and frankness. But although Billy regaled in the attentions of the press, he soon tired of the rapid commercialization of his hometown, caused by his brother's ascendancy to the White House; on a whim he decided to run for mayor, to combat the changes taking place in Plains. As his sister Ruth wrote, "not a speck of dust nor a dirty rag was removed to impress the electorate. 'No Progess' was his slogan, and his station still stands as an example of prosperity without progress in a town gone dolled up commercial for the tourists."

Throughout the time Billy owned the station, he was also running the family peanut business located across the street. The importance of the station in his life became apparent, however, when a spark from one of the drink machines set off an explosion in August 1976. The explosion occurred during a Softball game between the Secret Service staff sent to protect the Carters during the campaign, and Billy's cronies on the adjacent field. Seeing the flames, Billy ran to the station from the field and cried, "It's the only thing I've got."

The station again received media attention when Roy Bertram, an Illinois journalist, purchased the station at an auction in 1981. The bidding was televised in Illinois as a publicity stunt. Bobby Salter negotiated with Bertram the same day as the auction to buy it from him. Salter, a close friend of Billy, said he stopped by the station almost daily until his death from cancer in 1988. Salter said the one piece of advice Billy gave him was to not repeat his error of selling beer there. Salter followed the advice and sold peanuts, (dried, roasted or boiled), to the tourists and regulars who frequent the station.