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How Low Is the Bar For National Park System Inclusion When You Add a Gas Station?


Billy Carter's service station, circa 1979. University of Georgia photo.

Is this how low the bar has dropped for inclusion into the National Park System? Is it really so low that a gas station once owned by the beer-swilling brother of President Jimmy Carter should be managed as part of a national historical park by the National Park Service?

Sure, sure, sure, President Carter was the only Georgian to reach the White House as resident, and Billy Carter certainly attracted more than his share of notoriety -- Billy Beer, anyone? But why oh why would anyone want to include Billy's gas station at 216 West Church Street in the heart of downtown Plains, Georgia (Pop. 635) in a national historical park honoring President Carter?

Oh, that's right. While the NPS currently oversees the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, pending legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., and U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., would transform the "historic site" into a national "historical park." By comparison, Valley Forge is also a national historical park, one without an official gas station to the best of my recollection.

But then, perhaps a gas station does fit well with this site. Already it includes President Carter's boyhood farm, where you can still pick peanuts; his old high school, which is now the historic site's visitor center, and; the old Plains Train Depot that the former president utilized as campaign headquarters in 1976.

The pending legislation also calls for a house, once considered to be haunted, that Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter lived in after he was discharged from the Navy, and the state of Georgia's Visitor Information Center on the edge of town, to be added to the proposed historical park.


How else can they comment on the energy crisis that raged during Carter's term? Maybe they can snake a line of late 60's/early 70's Chryslers around the block to show what a gas line was ...


My travels through the National Park System:

Not the only historical gas station in the parks. Another one that comes to mind is the first VC at Little Rock Central High School at Magnolia station as I recall. Still part of the park property.

Sorry, Anonymous, can't find any mention of a gas station affiliated with Little Rock Central. Can you provide a link?

While there are many active gas stations located in and around national parks, I can't think of any defunct stations that are actually part of a park, nor any proposed to be part of a park because they were operated by a sibling of a president.

As an aside, I'm pretty sure that historic gas stations are included among the many cultural artifacts preserved in connection with the NPS-administered Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program. If you are keenly interested in historic gas stations, you should be sure to read John Jakle's The Gas Station in America (1994), Tim Russell's Fill 'er Up!: The Great American Gas Station (2007), and Motoring: The Highway Experience in America (2008) by John Jakle and Keith Sculle.

First off we now live in an age where the occupant of the White House is considered to be a personage of royal or even king-like stature. This is a far cry from the way the Founding Fathers intended this office to be occupied.

I mean really now folks, do we actually need national parks for the likes of Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter or that low-down scoundrel Lyndon Johnson? Apparently the powers that be on the banks of the Potomac are ever ready to honor these hack politicians from the past with pork laden parks, that very few Americans actually visit, and then greedily clamber for more (witness Saxby Chambliss trying to make Plains a NHP) once they are so designated. In fact the two most architecturally and historically significant presidential homes aren't even in the NPS, Mt. Vernon and Monticello. Thank goodness for that because the tender loving care they receive is not available through the Congressional budgeting process. Besides, these two men would have never considered the expense to the taxpayer as being in any way justified.

As long as our society continues to consider these men as demigods the government that spawned and sustained them will continue to maintain shrines in their honor for posterity's sake. Is the Bill and Hillary NHP all that far behind? (Will the Monica dress be on display? Or the lamp that Hillary threw at Bubba upon learning of his betrayal?) Is it just a matter of time before the federal government buys Shrub's ranch in Crawford? (With his pruning shears and Yale-era coke spoon in a glass case.)

In fact Billy's gas station is not all that strange to include when you consider the veneration heaped upon this rogues gallery of scalawags and scoundrels we call the Presidents of these United States.

I'm not sold that society has lifted these men up onto statues and so Congress feels indebted to honor them with NPS units. Rather, I think it's simply politicians trying to bring home the bacon so they can get re-elected.

Perhaps the time has come for an apolitical commission to hold court -- with the final say -- whenever a congressperson comes calling with legislation to add to the park system....

I'm not sold that society has lifted these men up onto statues and so Congress feels indebted to honor them with NPS units. Rather, I think it's simply politicians trying to bring home the bacon so they can get re-elected.

I think it's a combination of the two. "Society" wouldn't buy into this garbage if there wasn't a predisposition toward executive worship.

We overthrew the British in part to be free from a distant, single authority figure, but yet we now spend more per year to maintain the office of the president than the British spend on the monarchy. While president, Jefferson forbade his image on coins; now he and others' faces are all over coins and etched larger than life in to sacred Sioux stone in the Black Hills. The populace is more concerned about Michelle Obama's wardrobe (oh my god, is it J. Crew or an expensive designer label?) and the President's dating schedule than auditing the Federal Reserve or preserving national parks. The presidency has been elevated to celebrity status at incalculable expense to our republican form of government.

This reminds me of my time spent in a former Soviet satellite country in Eastern Europe. To keep people employed, the central economic planners ordered literally thousands of monuments built. Now, they lie in ruins, a testament to the folly of state worship.

But at least the Soviets didn't memorialize a gas station. Amerika is entering uncharted waters on its journey to the bottom of the ocean.

Frankly, I'm amazed that some of our more recent presidents are willing to put up with this kind of thing. I'm no fan of President Carter, but surely even he doesn't think his life should be memorialized while he's still alive. I can embrace the idea that it's worth modestly preserving a slice of rural Georgia life, because of its connection to a president--it's meaningless now, but we might be very grateful for it in 100 years. But have the decency to run it with his presidential library, or through a private foundation, until the man is actually dead.

Likewise with the absurd "William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site." Birthplace shrines (and he wasn't even born there--just lived there until he was 4) are suitable only for the greats and, Washington aside, you can't be one of the greats while you're still alive. A birthplace home dedicated to Bill Clinton is like Rubens' Apotheosis of James I on the ceiling of the Banqueting House in Whitehall--nice try, but you're not fooling anyone.

Kurt, you're half right. Politicians are bringing home the bacon, and we all know that NPS sites draw tourist dollars at little or no expense to the local economy. But there's also the element of shaping public history. They are a hagiographical effort, aimed at elevating the historical stature of their honorees. But by elevating so crass a structure as Billy Carter's gas station, we dull that particular instrument of public history. A particular Warhol quote comes to mind...

Bob: There's a decommissioned historic gas station in the historic district of Longmire, at Mount Rainier. However the one belonging to Billy Carter is just... embarrassing.

Frank C: Jefferson may have forbidden his image on coins, but he spread it all over the West on medals carried by Lewis and Clark.

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