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.)