SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — It sounds like a story concocted after a few too many drinks on St. Patrick's Day: The president of the United States walked into a bar.
But that really happened in Savannah. Jimmy Carter had been in the White House a little more than a year when he visited on March 17, 1978. After touring an aircraft carrier anchored off the Georgia coast, the president was whisked to downtown Savannah to check into a hotel suite. He then strolled across the street to Pinkie Master's Lounge, climbed atop the U-shaped bar and gave an impromptu speech to a stunned St. Patrick's Day crowd.
As thousands gathered in Savannah for the Irish holiday Friday, the new owners of Pinkie Master's had an extra reason to celebrate: A bronze plaque that had marked the spot where Carter stood, but went missing more than a year ago during a change in ownership, had shown up again.
"Looks beautiful," Matthew Garappolo, the bar's current owner, said after sliding the plaque back into place just after 7 a.m. Friday as customers began ambling into Pinkie Master's for their first beer of the holiday. "Let St. Patrick's Day begin."
Revelers with gaudy green T-shirts, dresses and hats packed the sidewalks and oak-shaded squares of downtown Savannah for its 193-year-old St. Patrick's Day parade — a 2.6-mile (4-kilometer) procession of more than 250 floats, pipe bands and marching groups billed as the nation's second-largest.
Temperatures were a biting 35 degrees (2 Celsius) when people rushed to the squares at 6 a.m. to set up party tents with coolers of beer and picnic tables stocked with bottles of whisky, vodka and rum. Folding chairs four rows deep lined the sidewalks.
"It's a weeklong process — you have to plan ahead," said Christy Poole, who placed chairs near the front of the parade route Thursday evening and left a friend's car nearby. On Friday she brought snacks, a cooler, thick blankets and other essentials. "We have our toiletries, because you never know what you're going to encounter when you go into these bathrooms."
St. Patrick's Day has long been Savannah's biggest tourism draw, becoming one of the South's biggest street parties after Mardi Gras. Crowds were expected to keep the party going through Saturday night. Savannah-Chatham County police said the celebration was off to a peaceful start. Only eight arrests, all alcohol-related misdemeanors, were reported during the parade Friday. And three St. Pat's revelers were arrested on all-misdemeanor charges Thursday night.
So why exactly did Carter visit Pinkie Master's Lounge as president 39 years ago?
Pinkie Master was the nickname of the bar's original owner, Luis Christopher Masterpolis, an early political supporter who helped Carter win the Georgia governor's race in 1970. Masterpolis died in 1977. When Carter came to Savannah the following year, he decided to drop by the bar to pay his respects.
According to the official White House diary of Carter's day, archived online by his presidential library, the president crossed the street from the DeSoto Hilton hotel to Pinkie Master's at 6:08 p.m., addressed the crowd, then left about nine minutes later.
Carter summed up the Savannah visit in a short letter sent Friday to Pinkie Master's owners.
"When I ran for governor, Pinkie himself was one of my most important supporters," the letter said. "And when I was back in Savannah as President of the United States, I will never forget standing on the bar to say thank you."
Carter's grandson, Jason Carter, confirmed his grandfather had sent the letter to the bar owners.
Garappolo declined to say precisely how he managed to recover the bronze plaque, which is engraved with Carter's profile and the inscription "Here Stood the President." He said a person, whom he wouldn't name, called and offered to return it.
"There were a lot of people who were all the time asking, 'Where's the plaque?'" Garappolo said. "I expected it to be covered in beer and dirt, but it was clean and shiny."