Billy Carter was the baby brother of President Jimmy Carter, and a frequent pain-in-the-rear to the Carter White House. He wasn’t the first or the last sibling to embarrass a world leader, but he may be the only one celebrated with a museum.
Much of the time when Jimmy was President, Billy hung out at his gas station in the Carter family hometown of Plains, Georgia. He would hold a can of beer and make blunt statements about his brother, government oil policies, and anything else that came to mind. Reporters flocked to his place of business, which was less known for pumping gas than for its indoor bar (stocked with cooler beer) and its backyard barbeques of grilled ribs and catfish. Billy wasn’t flaunting Presidential Brother Privilege; he ran the place that way long before Jimmy became President.
Billy Carter died in 1988. It took 20 more years for his gas station to become a museum — so long that the original building was condemned, torn down, and replaced with a replica. The Jimmy Carter National Historic Site covers dozens of acres and several buildings in town, but Billy’s gas station isn’t one of them. It was resurrected by the Plains Better Hometown Program, with help from Billy’s family and a lump of cash from brother Jimmy.
Harry Duke, coordinator of the program, showed us around, but a tour guide really isn’t necessary. Explanatory signs announce that the station is “a unique cultural landmark and a celebrated community gathering place,” while exhibits try to give some sense of Billy’s wattage in the disco ball of 1970s fame. There are publicity photos of Billy playing a deputy in a movie about lady truckers (“Flatbed Annie and Sweetiepie”) and another of him posing with a champion basset hound named Woodpile.
“Carter’s Closet” showcases some of Billy’s unique wardrobe, all of it really worn by the First Brother, according to Harry Duke. A denim business suit made by Harvey-Louis Krantz, “designer to the stars,” hangs next to a pair of custom bib overalls that Billy wore on Hee Haw. A fan created a wizard’s hat for Billy out of beer can pop tops (“Somebody,” said Harry, “drank an awful lot of beer to make that.”). Lying beneath his “Plains Pounder” boxing robe is the last pair of cowboy boots that Billy wore, still caked in mud.
Aside from sharing some chromosomes with a U.S. President, Billy Carter’s greatest claim to fame was lending his name to Billy Beer. Empty cans of it are all over the museum, most of them nailed down to prevent theft (A store named “The Peanut Gallery” across the street sells them for $5.00 apiece). According to Harry, Billy soon became embarrassed about his endorsement — not because it reflected poorly on his brother, but because Billy Beer was bad beer. “He said, ‘To like it, you had to be an alcoholic,’” Harry recalled. Billy reverted to drinking his brew of choice — Pabst Blue Ribbon — and Billy Beer folded after only two years.
But Billy made some money. A sign in the museum notes that the Billy Carter Gas Station sold 2,000 cases of beer and 45,000 gallons of gas a month at the height of the Carter Presidency. Then Jimmy lost the 1980 election, and Billy sold the station a year later. He died at the young age of 51.
Harry hasn’t seen Billy’s ghost at the station, but said he wouldn’t be surprised if Billy was hanging around. The small building is open to the traffic roaring past a few feet away on US 280, just like it was when Billy was alive. The gas pumps — set to 1979 prices — are the only parts of the original place that survived. Inside, the recreated station is all white, even the display cases, as if it had died and gone to heaven.
“I only had one person complain that it didn’t look like it did when Billy had it,” said Harry. “He said it was too clean.”