FREDERICKSBURG, TEXAS – Last month, while in the midst of the maelstrom and madness that was the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, I decided to take a somewhat presidential escape and participate in a press tour of the Texas Hill Country region, and follow in the footsteps of the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson, or LBJ for short.
Johnson, who served as president from 1963 to 1969, was known for his hardworking, bombastic style of leadership, especially when it came to working with the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to pass much vital legislation. Although his presidency will forever be known for being bogged in the quagmire of the Vietnam War, Johnson’s administration was also known for passing a great multitude of social legislation as part of his “Great Society” program, such as the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and Head Start.
However, when the stresses of Washington, D.C. and the White House got to be too much for him, LBJ would board Air Force One to the Hill Country, in particular, his ranch in Stonewall, Texas, where he could get some work done, entertain VIPs and heads of state, and physically and emotionally recharge his batteries in the much-relaxed atmosphere of the sprawling 2700 acres that made up his ranch. In fact, he spent a total of 490 days of his administration taking care of the business of the nation and relaxing at the ranch.
“This is a special corner of God’s real estate,” Johnson once said about his beloved Texas home. “It really moulds the character of people.”
In 1972, a year before his death, LBJ and his wife Lady Bird Johnson donated 600 acres of the ranch area to the U.S. National Parks Service, as a means to share the beauty of the Texas Hill Country landscape and the historic places that not only shaped his life, but also the history of the state of Texas. The end result was the LBJ State Park and Historic Site and the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park.
This impressive historical complex, which attracts about 75,000 visitors annually, is jointly operated by the State of Texas and the U.S. National Parks Service, and is dedicated to preserving the life and legacy of Lyndon B. Johnson and his pioneering Texas roots. Through visiting the preserved properties that were associated with his life, such as his birthplace and boyhood home, the Junction School one-room schoolhouse where he spent his early school days and the Texas White House, you get the authentic story of LBJ by literally following in his footsteps.
To get a vivid idea of what life was like in LBJ’s Texas world before he embarked on his political career, check out the Sauer-Beckmann Farm to start your visit. This farmhouse was actually resided by a family who were the Johnson family’s neighbours about a century ago. What is so amazing about visiting this farmhouse is that the people who serve as your guides (all of them volunteers) not only wear authentic clothing from that period (circa 1916), but they conduct actual homestead chores and prepare meals using the tools and appliances from that era, without any modern technological convenience in sight.
As you make your way along the trail to the Texas White House, you can’t miss the presence of the many Hereford cows that LBJ raised through his lifetime that still roam around the property. Make sure to visit the Show Barn facility, which was built 50 years ago. During his presidency, when Johnson hosted many special guests and heads of state at the ranch, he made it a point to make the Show Barn a stop on his personal guided tours of the ranch, and showed off the cattle and show bulls he raised at the barn, to give them the idea of what a typical Texas ranch looked like, which also helped to soften or change any negative opinions these visitors might have had of him. Also, the Show Barn is still run as a functioning cattle ranch, in which the livestock still sport the distinctive “LBJ” brand on their horns.
Another stop to make before visiting the Texas White House is LBJ’s personal airplane hangar, which also serves as the visitor centre and the gift and book shop, where you can purchase a wide range of books about LBJ and his presidency (including Robert A. Caro’s monumental four-volume biography of LBJ), replicas of his famous Stetson hat, and even an LBJ bobble head figurine. For an ideal souvenir of your visit to the LBJ Ranch, I recommend purchasing a copy of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park audio CD/DVD package, which costs only $7. The audio CD contains detailed descriptions of 18 of the sites that make up the entire facility (which includes quotes from LBJ himself, along with his daughters Luci Baines Johnson and Lynda Johnson Robb, as well as the Reverend Billy Graham and Johnson administration aide Joseph Califano); the DVD contains 39 photographs of the site, as well as a selection of documentary featurettes, including a 1968 tour of the ranch that was personally conducted by LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson (and judging by the relaxed tone of voice LBJ uses when he speaks in this doc, it readily shows how the ranch and the house was such an important part of his life throughout his 64 years).
The hangar also has a mini theatre, which shows a 14-minute featurette film about the story of LBJ and the Texas White House (highly recommended). Also, it stores the many presidential souvenir items in their original packaging, such as cigarette lighters, cufflinks and his trademark Stetson hat, that LBJ loved to give to visitors as gifts, as well as his small private jet plane that he used for his short flights to the ranch (which he referred to as “Air Force One-Half”).
The Texas White House itself, which was officially opened to the public in 2008, a year after Lady Bird’s death and to mark the 100th anniversary of LBJ’s birth, is a testament to the relaxed, laid back way of life the Johnson family enjoyed during their time there. Compared to the opulent residences of some of LBJ’s presidential predecessors – such as George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello — Johnson’s Texas White House is indeed quite modest-looking, yet no less comfortable. Whether it be the living room (with LBJ’s trademark three TV sets placed side by side, so he could watch the newscasts of CBS, NBC and ABC simultaneously and Lady Bird could watch her favorite TV show “Gunsmoke”, and the table where he liked to play dominoes), his wood-panelled office, the kitchen (in which the clocks are fixed at 1 p.m., the exact time on November 22, 1963 when John F. Kennedy was pronounced dead and Johnson officially became president) or his separate bedroom (which had a phone console with several phone lines … a similar device was also installed in the nearby bathroom), the visitor gets the impression that the Texas White House was not a museum piece, but a place where LBJ really did call home and was where he can retreat from the crazy world of the Washington corridors of power, yet not lose sight of his presidential responsibilities. Visits to the Texas White House are done via guided tours only (tickets are available for purchase at the airplane hangar visitor centre); the national park rangers who conduct the tours are excellent and have a vast knowledge of the world of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, and what this house meant to them.
After experiencing the life and world of Lyndon B. Johnson and his family by visiting the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, it gave me an eye-opening glance at the human side of this controversial president beyond the upheaval of the 60s that made up a great deal of his presidency. I can readily understand why he wanted to share his home with the rest of the world, which was echoed in the message that was inscribed on the mat that is placed on the front door of the Texas White House: “All the World is Welcome Here”.
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For more information about visiting the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, go to www.nps.gov/lyjo. And to find out more about the Texas Hill Country region, in particular the city of Fredericksburg, and what is has to offer, go to wwwvisitfredericksburgtx.com.
By: Stuart Nulman – totimes.ca