Now, though, we’re on The Mother of All Field Trips, visiting places where history happened and hearing personal stories of the involved parties. And I’m finding history to be far more interesting.
Visiting Johnson City & The LBJ National Historic Park
While staying in Fredericksburg, we immersed ourselves in a crash course on Lyndon Baines Johnson, a native of the Texas Hill Country and, as you know, the 36th president of our country. We didn’t intend to spend an entire day focused on LBJ, but we found ourselves drawn into the story of his life.
We started in Johnson City, founded by LBJ’s family in the 1870s. Here, we toured the white clapboard farmhouse that was his boyhood home (no electricity, no indoor plumbing) and learned a bit about his family (a pretentious, alcoholic politician for a father and a domineering, intellectual mother).
A photo of Lyndon, age seven, hangs in his childhood bedroom; he sits on the front steps in overalls and a cowboy hat. The inscription reads, “In a pensive mood.” No doubt.
The excellent LBJ National Park Visitor Center is just around the corner, where we learned about Johnson’s life and what he accomplished in his relatively brief sixty-four years on this earth. The short story: LBJ was a complicated man with a burning agenda to create The Great Society, with the goal of eliminating racial injustice and poverty. While many think of him as dictatorial and grandiose, an equal number remember him as compassionate and generous.
Despite his personality flaws, there’s no question that Johnson was dedicated to improving the lives of those less fortunate. His memories of growing up without electricity or running water and his education in a one-room schoolhouse strongly influenced his agenda. Johnson’s astonishing legacy includes the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the War on Poverty, Medicare, and protection for the environment. Throughout his administration, more national park sites were designated or expanded than during any other presidency.
Sadly, the Vietnam War overshadowed Johnson’s time as president. He believed that the war was essential to stop the spread of Communism—as did the majority of his advisors—and he couldn’t manage to extricate himself or our country. Johnson was painfully aware of public sentiment and agonized that people would remember him only for the war, and not for his commitment to creating the Great Society. After leaving the presidency, he was often depressed and spent hours morosely driving around his ranch while listening to “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” his favorite song. That made me sad.
The LBJ Ranch & The Texas White House
We continued our immersion in Johnson’s life in nearby Stonewall at the LBJ National Historical Park, the site of LBJ’s ranch and home. LBJ and Lady Bird spent so much time here during his presidency that it was known as the Texas White House. Many important state meetings took place on the front lawn in the shade of the 400-year old oaks overlooking the Pedernales River.
Walking into the Texas White House is like stepping back into the 1960s, down to the bright yellow Formica kitchen countertops and the turquoise Naugahyde furniture in President Johnson’s office. It felt oddly intimate perusing their belongings: Johnson’s suits, cowboy boots, and Stetsons in his closet; tailored dresses and brightly colored kaftans in Lady Bird’s closets.
A pillow on LBJ’s recliner is embroidered in a turquoise script that says, “This is my ranch, and I do as I damn please.” The embroidered pillows on Lady Bird’s bed say, “I slept, and dreamed that life was beauty. I awoke and found that life was duty.” It’s interesting how a sentence embroidered on a pillow can sum up an approach to life.
A note about the photos: Much to my dismay, photos are not allowed inside of the Texas White House. So I scrounged around and found a couple of interior shots on the internet that were taken by people who didn’t have a companion hissing, “Don’t even THINK about taking photos with your phone!”
The Interesting Personality Quirks Of LBJ
We were fascinated by the stories of exactly how President Johnson accomplished so much. LBJ lived and breathed politics 18-20 hours a day, and demanded that everyone who worked for him do the same. He had seventy-two phones in the Texas White House, including one installed in the dining room table next to his outrageous brown-and-white cowhide upholstered chair, which Lady Bird despised. He carried on phone conversations anywhere and everywhere (the toilet? Of course!). LBJ was crude, charming, and relentless. The isolation of the Texas White House served his purposes—once there, guests were captive until President Johnson got his way.
LBJ was also fond of practical jokes. He loved taking unsuspecting visitors for a ride in his amphibious car, pretending the brakes had failed while driving full speed into the lake.
And he enjoyed giving gifts. There’s an entire room filled with leftover gifts emblazoned with the Presidential seal, including the usual cigarette lighters and cufflinks, but also his trademark Stetsons—and bizarrely enough, electric toothbrushes. When asked, “Why toothbrushes?” he said, “I want people to think of me right away when they wake up and right before they go to bed.”
The Positive Influence Of Lady Bird
LBJ was undoubtedly enormously challenging to live with, but Lady Bird was always at his side to smooth things over. She was powerful in her own gracious, genteel way—her legacy is the Beautification Act of 1965, which pioneered environmental protection and beautification and is responsible for the wildflowers abundantly found along Texas highways. If you’ve ever traveled in Texas in the spring, it’s a stunning show.
LBJ genuinely felt a deep attachment to the land and his heritage. He longed for the Texas Hill Country, “where people know when you are sick, love you while you are alive, and miss you when you die.” He was born there, lived there for the last two decades of his life, died there, and was buried on the LBJ Ranch in the Johnson Family Cemetery. The President and Mrs. Johnson donated the ranch and their home to the National Park Service as a historic site, and Lady Bird lived there part-time—often seen waving to visitors from the porch—until her death in 2007.
The Historic Sauer-Beckmann Farm
We returned another day to visit the Sauer-Beckmann Farm, a living history farm that is connected to the LBJ Historic Site. It’s an authentic Hill Country farmstead that recreates life as it was in the early 1900s for a Texas-German family.
The rangers and volunteers do everything just as it was done at that time: milking cows and making butter and cheese, keeping chickens and collecting eggs, raising hogs for meat, making soap, growing a vegetable garden and tending fruit trees, keeping house, and cooking meals. Walking through the gate, we felt as though we had stepped back in time 100 years. We liked it so much that we’re considering volunteering there for a month or two at some point in our travels. (But not during hog butchering season.)
Very nicely done! Thanks for the tour.
Glad you enjoyed it!
Wow! What a beautiful place! You know me, I would love to live in his boyhood home. It looks awesome :) Is that his Mom walking through the Bluebonnets? hahahaha. You look gorgeous! xxoo
Haha, very funny!! I know you love all of the antiques — wish you could be visiting these historic places with us. Like I said, it’s The Mother of All Field Trips! Get on the bus!
Brought back memories of our visit there. Thanks for the delightful narrative.
It makes me happy to know that people actually read what I write; I appreciate your kind words, Jo. :-)
We loved our afternoon spent at the LBJ Ranch but particularly enjoyed the Sauer Beckman Farm. I know we’ll go back during a return visit to the Hill Country. It was so much more than we expected. Awesome job on the history lesson :-)
Ingrid, it was your visit to the Sauer Beckmann Farm that inspired us to go there. I think it would be a really interesting place to volunteer! Glad you enjoyed the history lesson. :-)
Oh, this was so much fun to read – brought back great memories for me! The Texas Hill Country is one of the highlights of our travels – we visited and enjoyed all the places you mentioned. And there are so many more (not LBJ related). I was one of the many young people who despised LBJ during the war years; it was only after I matured and paid more attention to his accomplishments that I realized how much he did for our country.
Laurie, I was amazed to discover how much LBJ accomplished, too. Like you and Odel, we also loved the Hill Country — despite spending a week there, there’s still a lot left to explore. I’ll have to find out some of your favorite places. :-)
What a great post with so much information. Don’t talk to me about remembering. You have a fantastic memory and take gorgeous pictures. I have always been a history buff and took lots of courses to the point where now I feel like I’ve been there and done that. But I’ve never been to the LBJ area. I was so anti LBJ in HS and college because of the stupid war. It took getting older and putting him in perspective to appreciate what a tremendous domestic agenda he had and how much he accomplished that we all benefit so much from and that many are trying to tear down these days.
Mostly I remember the odd facts and personality quirks — that’s what fascinates me! And, of course, the day to day life. I have to look up dates and facts because they don’t stick with me. You and David would thoroughly enjoy a visit to the LBJ museums and historical sites when you travel through the Hill Country.
Laurel, I completely agree with your view of history while in school. I have found a renewed interest in this subject since beginning our RV travels, but particularly since our tour of Gettysburg. Much of my reading of late has revolved around this period in our history and I feel much more engaged during our visits to DC. We loved the LBJ Ranch and Sauer Beckman Farm.
I learned so much from this post Laurel. Thanks for the great history lesson. :)
I’m glad you enjoyed it, LuAnn. I found myself doing a lot of reading about LBJ after visiting his home and ranch — the inner workings of people fascinate me. Your wonderful posts about DC are whetting our interest for our trip next summer — I have a lot of catching up to do on history. :-)
Thank you for the vivid description of LBJ’s Texas homes. We really enjoyed the play “All the Way” at OSF a couple of years ago. It’s now on Broadway. This season we look forward to the sequel “The Great Society.” You would find these plays extremely interesting and enlightening.
Diane, another friend just emailed me this morning and suggested that we see “The Great Society” while we’re in Ashland. Wish we had seen “All The Way” — I’m now fascinated by LBJ and the ways in which he accomplished all that he did.
Darn those honest rule followers!! Glad you were able to find a few photos others took:)
This sounds like a piece of history my husband will love and I might even enjoy! I do enjoy tours and personal touches. My favorite though, would be the living history museum. That is a wonderful photo, Laurel, of you with the canned “beets!?”
Thanks for such a great narrative of your tour. One day we may decide to visit TX.
Haha, Eric told me the Secret Service would come get me if I took any photos inside! The living history museum is wonderful — the rangers and volunteers really do everything authentically, including making all of the beautiful pickles, preserves, etc. I’ll bet you two would like Texas, for all of the natural beauty and for the history.
Great informative post. If you like this kind of places, e.g. Presidents home, then you will like the Little White House of FDR or Monticello or GW in Mt Vernon (the only ones we have been so far). And yes we learn a lot what we chose to gloss over when we are in school. Our lifestyle picks up where we left our wayward days in history lessons. Well especially for me who is an immigrant.
Yes, I’m much more motivated to learn about history (and geography) in this traveling lifestyle! All of the places you mentioned are on our long list of things we intend to do. I’ll have to look back at your blog and check out your experiences. :-)
Laurel, what a wonderful history lesson and tour of places that I will never get to see. Isn’t it interesting that we all have replied to you with the same sentiment, that as we get older we appreciate the history of our country so much more. I think it is because it is more “alive” to us now than when we were trying to absorb it from books in school. Thanks–I loved it!
I’m so glad you enjoyed the “field trip,” Barbara. I agree, history is so much more alive now that I’m not trying to simply absorb facts.