Rooted in Tradition
The ruins of a farm in southern Georgia are restored to preserve
a piece of Depression-era history and the origins of a president.
By Heather Hammatt, ASLA
Vernacular landscapes reflect the values and behaviors of the people who interact with and inhabit them. None of the site features of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site are particularly iconic. But together they recreate a cultural landscape that taught a young farm boy the value of hard work, stewardship, common sense, concern for others-in short, many of life's lessons that he later put to use as the 39th President of the United States and leader of the free world.
"My most persistent impression as a farm boy was of the earth.
There was a closeness, almost an immersion, in the sand, loam, and
red clay that seemed natural, and constant," Carter wrote in
An Hour Before Daylight (Touchstone, New York, 2001), memoirs
of his rural boyhood. Carter was born in Plains, Georgia, in 1924,
and four years later his family settled on a 350-acre farm in Archery,
two and a half miles west of Plains. Without electricity until 1937
and the advent of the Rural Electrification Act, and dependent on
a well for water, the Carters had to rely on hard work and the land
to provide for their needs. "When I left home in 1941 to go to college,
the absence of mechanized power, the almost total dependence on
manual labor, and the basic agricultural techniques employed were
relatively unchanged since colonial times," Carter wrote.
The Jimmy Carter National Historic Site and Preservation District,
including 15 acres of the original family farm in Archery and several
prominent buildings and institutions in Plains, was established
by Congress in 1987 as a unit of the National Park Service (NPS).
The farm restoration project, opened to the public in November 2000,
won a 2001 ASLA Design Merit Award.
The NPS began restoration work in late 1999 to bring the property back to its appearance in the 1930s. The NPS park superintendent Fred Boyles and Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter functioned as the client/owner, providing a wealth of feedback to the in-house NPS design team, helping the designers meet the requirements of park management and visitation while remaining true to the historic vision of the site. "It is the only historic site in America that will show how rural families lived during the Great Depression," Carter wrote.
South Georgia farms in the 1930s generally were unpretentious, consisting of a modest main house surrounded by various outbuildings such as barns, smokehouses, outhouses, and former slave cabins, according to William Patrick O'Brien, who composed a special history study of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site and Preservation District in Plains while attending the University of Georgia in November of 1991. "Our house was typical of those occupied by middle-income landowners of the time," Carter wrote. "Set back about 50 feet from the dirt road, it was square, painted tan to match the dust, and had a broad front porch and split-shingle roof.... We also had a screened porch that extended across the back of the house...where our family congregated in warm weather, which was about nine months of the year." Like many others in the region, the Carter house had no grass lawn. White sand was trucked in (on wagons) to cover the yard and had to be swept regularly. The restoration recreates the sand yard aesthetic.
The NPS did extensive research before beginning the restoration process to ensure that the reproduction of the site's lost features would occur with minimal conjecture. "Working on the restoration of the home of a living president was a different experience. We always knew we had someone looking over our shoulders who lived what we were trying to recreate," says Joe Crystal, FASLA, project manager with the Denver office of the NPS. "President Carter, who is now in his 70s, has an incredibly accurate memory for detail. The things he knew he remembered correctly, he would be adamant about. With the things he was fuzzy on, he would let us rely on our cultural research."
The NPS had access to aerial agricultural survey photos from the 1930s, 1960s, and 1990s to assist with the restoration layout. However, because they were taken for an agricultural survey, they are oblique, not orthogonal to the earth's surface. The NPS employed an aerial photo interpretation firm that compensated for the distortions and lack of information with a computer software program, but it was not able to entirely rectify the problem. For example, in his book Carter wrote, "There was a dirt tennis court next to our house, unknown on any other farm in our area, which Daddy laid out as soon as we moved there and kept clean and relatively smooth with a piece of angle iron nailed to a pine log that a mule could drag over it every week or so." The restoration design team had drawn sketches of the farm and had laid out the tennis court at a certain angle to the house, as shown in the aerial photos. NPS ranger Sarah Robinson says that Carter took one look at the layout and insisted that the court wasn't facing that way, but instead was perpendicular to the road. When the designers told him that the aerial photos showed it oriented as drawn, Carter responded, "Well, I can't argue with aerial photos." But, Robinson recalls, a month later Carter returned to his original assertion, saying, "I know. I played on that court every day, and it is not at that angle." An archaeologist excavated that area and, sure enough, President Carter was right, Robinson says.
Employing official photos, archaeological research, and the Carters' photos, the NPS built an understanding of the character and culture of the site. "Little did the Carter family know how valuable their snapshots would be for the restoration," says Robinson, who also used photos that Carter commissioned at the farm during his political campaigns of the 1970s.
"Typically the NPS is somewhat suspicious when working with a living person, [worried] that they may try to embellish their legacy," says Crystal. "I didn't get the sense from Carter that he was trying to do that. The more we reconstructed, the more he remembered." In fact, the former president was an integral part of the design process. "The more we did, the more detail he'd remember and want us to add. When you are on a fixed contract you don't want to add any more extra detail than is necessary. But we had an understanding contractor, and we all realized that we were working for President Carter. We all wanted to do a good job because of that," says Crystal.
''Everyone on the farm was affected by the interrelationship of prices, crops, noxious weeds and grasses, moisture, and the condition of the soil in our fields," Carter wrote. "Almost all our food was produced in our pasture, fields, garden, and yard." The park service restoration recreates a small version of the Carter family vegetable patch to one side of the house, experimenting with varieties from the 1940s, things the Carters would have grown, Robinson says.
The property's larger working fields would have been planted with
cotton, the dominant crop in the region until the 1930s, and then
with peanuts. Carter's father, James Earl Carter, Sr., was one of
the first in the area to seriously pursue the peanut as an agricultural
crop. Initially peanuts were mainly sold as hog feed, as ingredients
to candy companies, or to be used for seed, according to O'Brien.
Demonstration fields give today's visitors an idea of the agricultural
side of the property. "In the plots we tried to plant the crops
they had on the farmsugar cane, cotton, peanuts, and corn,"
Robinson says. Surprised to be able to go out into the fields and
touch the plants, visitors tell Robinson they think it strange to
pick cotton at a national park. "That's what it's here for," says
Walking through the sand-covered yard, or down the red clay paths into the park service's careful re-creation of the farm, it is easy to forget the traffic and technology of today's world. Historic photographs and Carter's descriptions helped in determining the details of the yard and farmyard. "All our fields were fenced with woven hog wire about three feet high nailed to wooden posts and topped with two strands of barbed wire to hold the larger cattle, mules, and horses," Carter wrote. "Most of our woodlands were also fenced, having some value as forage areas for the livestock.... Almost all the leaves and even pine needles were eaten as high as cows could reach, giving the woods and swamps an openness that was convenient for us boys to explore, for hunters to follow dogs, and for finding and observing the domestic animals." The restoration design and the ongoing maintenance of the site trigger new memories by the 77-year-old former president.
"We took a very conservative approach to planting. We removed things not of the period and planted very few new things," says Crystal. Calling for buried utility lines and strategically located and screened transformers, the restoration design minimizes evidence of modern technology. Parking and restrooms are unseen from the historic portion of the site. Some of the original paths were kept, and others were created to move visitors through the site. "The path alignment follows cultural landscape patterns," says Crystal. "This is a farm. If people walk off the path, so be it. If we try too hard to protect our design, we would lose the character of a beaten path that we are trying to portray." The paths are constructed of a mixture of cement, local soil, and brown sand to create the look of bare earth.
The restored landscape incorporates sustainable components where possible, including the use of native plants, minimal grading, salvaged materials, and the harnessing of wind power to pump water. "Reconstructing the windmill was critical. It is an icon for the farm," says Crystal. Using the original manufacturer's specifications, a replica was built, including a cypress wood tank that leaks. "Well, it leaked 70 years ago," Carter is reported to have said.
The Carter family photos were insufficiently clear to be conclusive about the manufacturer of the windmill. Bryant Nunnelly of Pell City, Alabama, and Mark Welch of Fort Worth, Texas, windmill specialists, analyzed the photos and physical evidence on site and were able to determine that the mill was a 10-foot-diameter Challenge 27 manufactured by the Challenge Company in Batavia, Illinois. That model is no longer available, so Southern Breeze Windmills of Pell City was contracted to reconstruct it. Southern Breeze was able to locate the blade mechanism of an original Challenge 27, but not the tower and tank, which were custom-made to the manufacturer's original specifications and diagrams.
Interpreting the significance of the landscape, structures, and
inhabitants of the farm, signature nps waysides, or signsporcelain
panels about three feet wide by two feet tall that are held waist
high on a slender metal frameprovide a mixture of historic
photos, art, maps, and brief texts that relate to the various vistas.
"We could use the photos to put real people into what would be,
most of the time, a stage without its actors," writes Johnson.
Several of the waysides incorporate recordings of Carter describing his memories of the given area or telling an anecdote that relates to the scene. "I remember sweating and thinking that it would take a lot of work before this would again look like a hardworking 1930s Georgia farm. And my job would be to figure out just how to whisper in the ears of visitors who would be coming here. If I did my job right, they might have a chance to learn what it was about this particular farm that could raise up a future president," wrote Mark Johnson, the park service's designer of the waysides, in an article about the farm for the Americus Times-Recorder (published November 17, 2000).
"The project did end up being too pretty, in my opinion," admits Crystal. "The original maintenance of the site would have been very utilitarian. The ground would have been barren because of the animals and people walking all over it. It will take a number of years before it gets that rustic look."
Located four and a half hours south of Atlanta, the Jimmy Carter
Boyhood Farm is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Thanksgiving,
Christmas, and New Year's Day. For more information visit www.nps.gov/jica,
or call 229-824-4104.
Design team: Staff from the following NPS offices participated
in this project: Denver Service Center, National Park Service, Denver;
Southeast Regional Office, National Park Service, Atlanta; Jimmy
Carter National Historic Site, National Park Service, Plains, Georgia.
Construction inspector: Martin Johnson, architect, Americus,
Contractor: David Elliott and Associates, Phenix, Alabama.
Consultants: Aerial photo interpretation: Environmental Research,
Inc., Linden, Virginia, Kristen Stout.
Archaeology: Cultural Site Research & Management, Baltimore,
Maryland, Douglas Comer, principal. Windmill reconstruction: Windmill
expert and author, Texas Heritage Museum, Hillsboro, Texas, T. Lindsey
Baker; Windmill contractor, Pell City, Alabama, Bryant Nunnell.
Special consultant: President Jimmy Carter.
Client: Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, National Park
Service, Plains, Georgia: Fred Boyles, superintendent; Sarah Robinson,
Boyhood Farm site manager.
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