GREENWICH, N.Y. — Picking up where last week’s Hansen’s Histories left off, Jimmy Carter was accepted into the United States Naval Academy in 1943. He graduated and was commissioned as a naval officer in 1946. A few weeks after graduating, Jimmy married Rosalynn Smith. Also from Plains, Jimmy had known Rosalynn since he was a child and she was a good friend with his sister, Ruth. Jimmy never showed much interest in her since he was a few years older. However, while on a visit home from the academy Jimmy was set up on a date with Rosalynn. The next morning when asked by his mother what he thought of her Jimmy surprisingly said, “She’s the one I’m going to marry” (Carter, p. 38).
Jimmy began his naval career soon afterward and was stationed at various posts on the East Coast and later Pearl Harbor. Within a few years Jimmy had graduated submarine school and was chosen to work on an elite nuclear submarine called the USS Seawolf. While arduous, Jimmy and Rosalynn enjoyed the Navy life and he had achieved the rank of lieutenant with the promise of further advancement. Yet this life would be interrupted suddenly in 1953.
Early in that year Carter’s mother informed him that his father, Earl, was in poor health. In June he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. In July he passed away leaving behind a legacy and a farm (Carter, p. 65).
The passing of Jimmy’s father marked what he would later call, “One of the strangest and most unexpected events in my life…” (Carter, p. 66). In the weeks that followed Jimmy was roiled with thoughts about his future and his family’s future. In the end he came to the conclusion that he needed to return to Plains to assume the responsibility of running the family business. Rosalynn was not happy about this decision. She enjoyed being a “navy wife” and the independence it offered her. “…Plains had too many ghosts for me,” she later said and the thought of returning was not enticing to her (Bird, p. 37). For a time, their relationship was icy because of this decision. Nevertheless, Jimmy resigned from the navy and the couple returned to the place they left twelve years ago, this time with three young sons.
Despite Jimmy’s navy position the family had little money, so they lived in a newly built government housing unit upon their return. Jimmy also quickly learned that his uncle Alton had declined becoming executor of his father’s estate and that he had made Jimmy executor. Jimmy protested saying that he did not know enough about farming, the business, or the customers involved to effectively do it. However, Alton said that doing it would be the best way for him to learn (Carter, p. 69).
Taking over in the midst of the peanut and cotton harvests, Jimmy received a crash course in buying crops from farmers, collecting debts, and harvesting their own crops from the field. Luckily for him, farming methods in the area had not changed much in his decade-long absence from the farm. Cotton and peanuts were still picked by hand. Apart from the farm pickup truck, mules and horses still powered the farm’s equipment (Carter, p. 69).
Unfortunately, he soon discovered there were some problems that had befallen the farm in the years prior to his return as well as facets of the business that he had not understood as a child. Many of the farm’s tenants who purchased supplies from the Carters on credit did not pay these debts at the end of the season as they should. There was goodwill toward the family from these farmers, but Carter explained, “…it became apparent that when given an option of which creditor should be paid first, many of the customers met their obligations to the one who was most demanding. There were a disturbing number of unpaid accounts at the end of the season.” (Carter, p. 70).
Another problem was back taxes. An IRS audit a few years prior led to penalties against the farm since there were no written records of income earned through timber sales (Carter, p. 70). Much of the estate’s money went toward paying these tax penalties. In short, Carter realized that the farm was land rich but cash poor, and he had to take out a $10,000 loan for farming operations (Bird, p. 41). Learning the ins-and outs of taking over the operation Carter later in life wrote, “My wide-ranging and expanding responsibilities made my previous navy life – even helping to design and build an original nuclear power plant – seem simple.” (Carter, p. 70)
To prep for his first full year of farming in 1954, Carter spent the winter reading educational and research materials from Georgia experiment stations and traveling to agriculture workshops. He also was able to secure an arrangement with a local fertilizer manufacturer to sell their product to his farmers and others. Unfortunately, Plains saw one of the worst droughts in its history in 1954 leading to paltry yields. The gross income from the year was just $280 (Bird, p. 42).
After this poor start to his return to farming, things steadily improved for Carter and his business. Despite 1954 being a poor year, one of the positives was the planting of a new peanut variety called Virginia Bunch 67. This variety grew very well as every other crop faltered. Sensing an opportunity Carter decided to shift the focus of the farm to producing seed peanuts as well as growing cotton, corn, soybeans, and wheat (Carter, p. 72).
In 1955 normal weather conditions returned and the farm made a decent profit allowing the Carters to pay off their unpaid accounts. In the following years they were able to put their profits into expanding the business. Carter modernized the farm by implementing technologies like fertilizer spreading trucks and equipment that made peanut and corn processing more efficient. The former naval engineer put his skills to work designing and building storage facilities, elevators, and a peanut-shelling plant (Carter, p. 73).
By the early 1960s Carter was reestablished in farming. Some of Carter’s siblings sold him their shares of the farmland and the farm grew to about 3,200 acres of land. He also founded the agribusiness Carter’s Warehouse. Carter’s Warehouse offered a wide range of services to other area farmers including peanut storage and shelling, peanut seed purchase, cotton ginning, grain storage and grinding, custom fertilizer blending, and insurance. Eventually, Carter’s Warehouse could store up to fifteen thousand tons of peanuts, and sold peanut seed throughout Georgia and parts of Florida and Alabama (Carter, p. 73).
The business remained family-centered as it grew. Jimmy’s mother and brother, Billy, became minor partners in the warehouse business, and his three sons helped out driving trucks and handling crops when they became old enough. Rosalynn also took on an increasingly prominent role in the business keeping the books and monitoring finances. With Jimmy often busy visiting customers, Rosalynn kept the office portion of the business running smoothly. In his memoir A Full Life Carter wrote, “Over time she [Rosalynn] accommodated our return to Plains and proved to be an invaluable partner in managing Carter’s Warehouse…I became heavily reliant on her judgment and learned to consult her routinely.” (Carter p. 88-89)
Despite the farm and business’s success the Carters faced some troubles mainly over the issue of race. The Civil Rights Movement was happening in the country in the 1950s and 1960s. Through experiences in his upbringing and in the navy, Jimmy supported integration and believed in the equal treatment of whites and blacks. Most citizens in the Carters’ area of Georgia did not support these views. On one occasion in 1955 some customers visited Carter at the warehouse seeking to persuade him to join the community’s White Citizens Council, a group that sought to uphold segregation. Carter refused. When they persisted, Carter had to angrily express that he would not join under any circumstances. After the event the family feared that a boycott of their business might follow. Although they lost some customers and were themselves barred from shopping at some town businesses, no major retaliation took place. Their support of integration and equal treatment made them social outcasts to an extent in Plains for several years. (Bird, p. 48)
Nevertheless, as the Carter farm grew in size and prominence, Jimmy became more involved in the community and the state. Wanting to help other farmers he was elected president of the Georgia Crop Improvement Association which was responsible for the production and distribution of seeds of all varieties in the state (Carter, p. 73). On a local level he was involved in Plains’ Lions Club, was chairman of the Sumter County School Board, volunteered at the Plains library and local hospital, and was highly involved in his church (Bird, p. 42).
Soon his interested turned to politics. In 1962 he ran his first campaign and was elected to the Georgia State Senate serving until 1967. Following a failed attempt at the governorship in 1966, Carter was elected governor of Georgia in 1970. Finally in 1976, Carter beat Gerald Ford and was elected president after starting the race as an outsider candidate.
As Jimmy became more interested in politics, his brother took over the farm operations becoming farm manager in 1966 (Bird, p. 62). When Carter was elected president the farm and warehouse were placed in a blind trust and an Atlanta law firm took over administration of the farm. This was done in order to avoid any resemblance of conflict of interest while serving as president. However, after leaving the presidency in 1981 the Carters found out that three years of drought and mismanagement had left the business nearly $1 million in debt. To overcome these debts the farm business was sold ending Carter’s Warehouse. The Carter family retained much of the land which is still used for agriculture and timber production, and conservation purposes today (Carter, p. 204).
Jimmy Carter went on to do many diplomatic and humanitarian activities in the decades following his presidency focusing on peace and human rights. Yet his farm years have had an influence in many aspects of his life. Growing up on a farm played a role in developing a strong work ethic as a boy and leadership skills when he took over the farm. His friendships and experiences with African American neighbors instilled an interest in and promotion of civil rights in him which differed from many in rural Southern communities at the time. Managing and owning the farm made him deeply interested in environmental issues which can be clearly seen in his presidency in measures like the formation of the Department of Energy and passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
The farm also appears to have played a role the in Carters’ marriage helping them become partners in more aspects of their lives. This was evident in their political lives as Jimmy entrusted Rosalynn with key campaign matters and sought her advice on issues once in the White House, even allowing her to sit in on cabinet meetings at times. At ages 98 and 96 Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter still live in Plains, Georgia today. Even in their later years they have remained interested in their lands, including their forestlands which they helped manage with the help of a forester into their 90s (Carter, p. 204).
Chandler Hansen grew up and lives in Easton, NY. He is a graduate of Gordon College where he earned a bachelor’s degree in History. He serves as a writer and editor for Morning Ag Clips.