Plains High School, Plains Georgia
The first Plains school was a two-story frame structure facing Bond Street on the west side of the current school property. Plains citizens raised $1,800 to erect this building which was first opened to students in 1900. Julia Coleman, who would later be cited by Jimmy Carter as one of the major influences in his life, began teaching English at the school in 1912. In the late 1910s, there was an effort throughout Sumter County to consolidate many of the one-teacher school houses into larger, better-equipped schools. At his time, the Mossy Dell School and Planters Academy both merged with the Plains School.
With the consolidation came new school buildings in the towns of Union and New Era, and on August 17, 1920, the citizens of Plains followed suit and held a meeting to discuss the construction of a new school building to replace the frame structure on Bond Street. To finance the school, the board of trustees sold $50,000 of 5 percent, 30-year serial bonds. Under the leadership of chairman W.T. Wise, the trustees advertised in the Manufacturer's Record for an architect to build the proposed $50,000 ten-room brick or stucco building. Although the name of the architect is unknown, Plains residents remember that the school was erected by local builder Ernest T. Wellons, the son of Reverend Augustus C. Wellons (who constructed many homes as well as one of the 1913 Wise Hospital building on Main Street). The old frame school suffered from a one-room fire while the new school building was still under construction, and Clarence Dodson remembers his first-grade class being evacuated from the old school and taken directly to the new one to continue classes in the completed section.
The new brick school building was one of the largest and best equipped in the county. Julia Coleman served as the principal until 1927 when she became superintendent, and Young Thomas Sheffield filled her position. The two made a strong team and have been widely praised by the Carters and the citizens of Plains. Coleman, crippled by polio, dedicated her life to her students and would often single out a specific child who either needed an extra boost, or who showed outstanding potential. Jimmy Carter was one of these "pets." He remembered her encouraging him to read War and Peace when he was about 12 years old, a book that remains one of his favorites. Under Coleman's guidance, he graduated in 1941 at the top of his class; he was unable to serve as valedictorian because he and all the other boys in his graduating class decided on a whim to play hookey in the final months of their high school career. They were punished, and Jimmy had to relinquish the title to another student.
In addition to acting as principal and superintendent, Coleman also taught eighth-grade English; in 1949, she stepped down from the position of superintendent to devote more time to teaching the subject. She encouraged all students to read and initiated an exchange program with the Sumter County Library so that the students had access to a large number of books. Superintendent's reports over the years indicate that the Plains School library had the largest number of volumes in the county for many years and was constantly expanding. Coleman also fostered in her pupils an appreciation of the arts. She required her students to memorize poetry and Bible verses and recite them for their classmates. She also directed a variety of plays and school programs and was instrumental in bringing an acting troupe from Chautauqua, New York, to perform in the rural southern town. Coleman was honored by the community in May 1949 with a Julia Coleman Day celebration at which time a marker inscribed with her name was placed on the school grounds. She continued to teach until 1958, giving fifty years of service altogether. She died in 1973.
While Coleman was the creative half of the team, Sheffield had a head for business and athletics. He rallied the community together to construct a new gymnasium and vocational building which was dedicated February 14, 1934, and named Sheffield Stadium in his honor. At the dedication service, Mamie McDonald Bradley donated to the vocational department $100.00 worth of tools belonging to her late husband, John McDonald of the Oliver-McDonald Furniture Company. The gymnasium burned to the ground in 1938, and Jimmy Carter remembers that afterwards he and his basketball team had to play their home games at Preston High School. The Lions Club, under the leadership of P.J. Wise, raised money for the current gym to be constructed in the 1950s.
In 1937, the Plains High School was designated by the State Board of Education as a "model" or laboratory school to be used as an example to others in the area. In the 1937-38 superintendent's annual report, the laboratory and home-economic equipment was valued the highest of any rural school in the county. Plains also led the county in the amount of financial support from city donations. The school had thirteen teachers and a total of 259 students, 143 in the primary school and 116 in the secondary. The superintendent's report from 1954 indicates that a lunchroom and $5,000.00 worth of lunchroom equipment was added that year. The school still led the county in its number of library volumes and vocational equipment.
By the late 1960s, all the county schools had been integrated, and many were being divided into separate primary and secondary schools. In 1969, Plains was the smallest school in the county that still had twelve grades; in 1970, the primary school was moved south of the railroad tracks to the Westside Elementary School, formerly the Rosenwald School for black children. Plains High School closed in 1979 and students began attending classes at the county high school in Americus.