If you’ve visited Don Carter State Park and enjoyed your time there, you might want to thank Jimmy Carter, regardless of political persuasion.
After all, it was the former president who set the park’s namesake on the path of a 29-year stay on the Georgia Department of Natural Resources board.
The seed was planted when Don Carter told Jimmy Carter, who was running for governor, that he would like to serve on the Game and Fish Commission, the forerunner to the Department of Natural Resources. The conversation took place as the pair walked along a beach on the Georgia coast in the early 1970s.
In time, Gov. Carter would appoint Don Carter — no relation, by the way — to the DNR board, on which he would serve under five governors and while Jimmy Carter would serve in the White House, 1977-1981.
And it would be Don Carter’s devotion to the DNR and efforts in acquiring land for the North Hall park that would lead to his name on the sign at the park entrance off North Browning Bridge Road, a tree-lined drive from Clarks Bridge Road.
“I think it’s the nicest park in the state of Georgia,” Carter during a sit-down interview to discuss the park and reflect on his life and labors.
Carter, 81, is a Detroit native who has spent most of his life in Hall County. He graduated from Gainesville High School and went on to get a bachelor’s degree from Mercer University in Macon.
He worked for a couple of years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers building tank ranges at Fort Stewart (then known as Camp Stewart), then went on to a 10-year career in the poultry industry. Carter ended up establishing Don Carter Realty Co. in 1967, a business he helps run today with his son, Doug.
Carter got to know Jimmy Carter on an overnight trip to Jimmy’s native Plains, along with a local lawyer.
“They introduced me to politics,” said Don Carter, who ended up as one of the future governor’s 9th District supporters.
When later asked by Jimmy Carter about a role in state government, Don Carter said he preferred the Game and Fish Commission because “employees were acting as servants for the members of the board and I didn’t like it one bit.”
After he began serving on the board, Carter was able to help create one statewide opening day for deer season.
“North Georgia was a week or two behind South Georgia,” Carter said. “I thought that was one of the most foolish things there could be.”
The schedule change “was the first thing I had done that was halfway decent,” he added.
“The DNR was my baby,” Carter said. “I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed land acquisition — that was mainly what I did.”
During his watch, the state bought some 300,000 acres, including land for what would be Don Carter State Park.
Carter said he had become friends with Sanford Orkin, who owned the land where the new park sits.
One day, he and former DNR Commissioner Joe Tanner were flying in a helicopter to Unicoi State Park when Tanner agreed to go off course a little, so that Carter could show Tanner the Orkin property.
“That would make a great park,” Tanner said.
“It sure would,” Carter said.
The DNR started land acquisition in 1994 and completed the buy in 2010, former DNR Commissioner Lonice Barrett said.
The final price was $6.5 million for 1,039.8 acres. The bulk of the land was bought while Tanner was commissioner and as a part of former Gov. Zell Miller’s Preservation 2000 Land Acquisition Program, Barrett said.
Don Carter now stands as the first state park in Hall County and on Lake Lanier. The lake also has a privately operated resort, Lake Lanier Islands, and day-use parks and campgrounds operated by the corps and local governments.
“We have patterned the park for the middle-class people, the workers who can’t afford Lake Lanier Islands, who want to spend a vacation and not pay all the money to get it,” Carter said.
In 2002, as Carter ended his service on the board, he was surprised by Barrett’s announcement of the park’s name during a farewell party at Lake Lanier Islands.
“I had no idea they would do that,” Carter said in a 2008 interview. “That was very moving.”
Barrett said, “As far as we know, he was the longest-serving board member on any board in state government.”
The naming also seemed appropriate “given all that he had done at DNR, serving as our chairman and having been involved in land acquisition and wildlife resources programs, and always opening his personal property for people to come and use for business and recreational activities,” Barrett said.
“Don Carter is one of the most selfless, generous people I’ve ever known,” he added.
The 1,316-acre park, which overlooks Lanier’s northeastern reaches, opened July 15, with Don and his wife, Lucile Carter, arriving early to greet visitors and pose for pictures at the entrance.
Best wishes have been flowing since the park’s opening, including at a reception honoring the couple, who have three grown children, Doug, DeeAnn Benton and Steve Carter, on Aug. 29 at Peach State Bank in downtown Gainesville. The room was a who’s who of people from Don Carter’s past — Barrett, Tanner and former DNR Commissioner Leonard Ledbetter among them.
“This is emotional, I’ll just tell y’all,” Lucile said at the event. “Thank you for ... being our friends.”
Don Carter said he has asked the former president, who called to offer his congratulations, if he could be at Monday’s 11 a.m. dedication ceremony at the park.
“He doesn’t know,” he said. “He has so many things to do, he would probably wait until the last minute to tell us.”
That friendship has maintained through the years.
“He’s a good friend,” Carter said. “He gets a lot of criticism and I have to bite my tongue when people talk bad about him.”