Becoming Billy Carter: Clothes Make the Man (and His Many Characters)
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Becoming Billy Carter:
Clothes Make the Man (and His Many Characters)

"I've got a mamma who joined the Peace Corps when she was sixty-eight. I've got one sister who's a holy-roller preacher. I've got another sister who wears a helmet and rides around on a motorcycle. And I've got a brother who thinks he's going to be the President of the United States. So that makes me the only sane one in the family."

—Billy Carter 1
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Buddy Carter observed that his father Billy (here) behaved as at least three different people: "One was the guy we saw at home; the one who provided for us and disciplined us. The man who read four newspapers a day and seven or eight novels a week and who could discuss any topic from how much rain was needed to make a crop to global politics. Another was the man who worked hard every day in the family business, putting 100 percent of his attention to task. The third was the man the press paid attention to." Photograph courtesy of the Billy Carter Service Station Museum Collection.

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The building standing at 105 E. Church Street in Plains, Georgia, is painted white with red accents. Four old theater seats are placed against the front window—just like they were in the 1970s—and two old truck tires stand by the door. Inside, the room is freshly painted, like it has not been in several decades. On the left, a long bar-like museum fixture extends almost the length of the interior. There is no cash register at the bar to finalize transactions from visitors—no beer, cigarettes, or candy for sale anymore at Billy Carter's Service Station. Behind the bar there is a six-tier shelving unit, and although there are several cans of Billy Beer, they are all empty. Along the walls of the old station there are now nicely hung photographs and informational panels, no Pabst Blue Ribbon advertisement or posters featuring Farrah Fawcett. Billy Carter's Service Station became a museum in May 2009 and locals insist "the building never looked this clean before."2

The place is an important landmark in the history of Plains, Georgia. In 1972 Billy Carter purchased Mill Jennings's two-pump service station, with the intention of carrying on Jennings's tradition of offering a community gathering place. In 1976 Billy Carter's Service Station, an unassuming building located in a small, hard-to-find-on-the-maps Georgia town, became famous worldwide after journalists covering Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign made the station their unofficial headquarters. Tourists immediately searched for the small town of Plains, the president's history, and the famed Billy Carter. Carter's popularity eventually rivaled that of his president brother, as he became a fixture of several television shows while endorsing products such as Billy Beer and the "'Redneck Power' Pick-Up." Billy sold the service station in 1981 and later reflected on its heyday: "There were 20,000 tourists a day pouring into Plains right after Jimmy's election. Cars would be bumper-to-bumper for about 10 miles, from Americus to Plains. Highway 280 looked like a Los Angeles freeway."3 At the height of its popularity the station sold 2,000 cases of beer and between 40,000 to 50,000 gallons of gas every month. The station was, and still is, a piece of 1970s popular culture and for many a symbol of Americana at its best.

Billy Carter capitalized on his popularity by adopting a public persona (or personas) that was somewhat different from his real self. He used clothing and often costume in order to enhance the creation of characters such as "redneck power ambassador" and "beer-drinking king of America." Indeed, his family often talked about him as "performing a character" for the rest of America that didn't resemble the person he was at home.4

Billy Carter, Hometown Businessman

The Carter Family moved to Georgia from North Carolina in the 1780s with Kindred Carter (1750-1800), marking the...