LBJ centennial spurs the revived interest in his Hill Country sites

The state park's LBJ statue was dedicated in 1974.
The state park's LBJ statue was dedicated in 1974. (Pam Berry for The Boston Globe)
By Doug Warren
Globe Correspondent / August 17, 2008
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STONEWALL - Near the Pedernales River, a statue of Lyndon Baines Johnson stands, pointing in perpetuity to the ranchland on the opposite bank where he was born, where he died, and where he is buried.

At 8 feet, the bronze figure of the nation's 36th president is only slightly larger than life, but it casts a long shadow, as does Johnson's legacy on US history and his beloved Texas Hill Country.

Today, with the nation pursuing another unpopular foreign war, under a president with much shallower Texas roots, interest in LBJ is on the rise. The national historic site that bears Johnson's name - split between Stonewall and Johnson City, 14 miles east - has seen a 20 percent increase in attendance since 2006.

Visitors to the Hill Country and nearby cities can explore all aspects of Johnson's life (1908-73) and storied political career. A state park named in his honor borders the national site. His presidential library is in nearby Austin and a museum that focuses on his college career at what was then Southwest Texas State Teachers College opened in San Marcos in 2006. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, also in Austin, fittingly preserves the commitment to environmental protection and beautification initiated by the first lady.

And with the 100th anniversary of his birth on Aug. 27, change is coming to the place Johnson called home: the LBJ Ranch and what became known around the world as the Texas White House.

"The ranch was always the nugget that was home," said Luci Baines Johnson, 61, the president's younger daughter, in a phone interview from her Austin office. "My father in two days at the ranch got more renewal than most people get from two weeks in the Caribbean."

Johnson flew to the 2,700-acre ranch 74 times during his presidency (1963-69), working 490 days at the Texas White House. He entertained world leaders here, laid the groundwork for landmark legislation to forge his "Great Society," and plotted the course of the Vietnam War. After her husband's death, Lady Bird lived at the ranch part time until her death last year at 94.

Because Mrs. Johnson and her family - and her Secret Service detail - were frequently in residence, public access to the ranch was largely limited to bus tours run by the National Park Service out of the state historic site. But starting Aug. 27, visitors will be able to enter Johnson's restored office as the first step in a multiyear process to open the entire Texas White House to the public.

"Our job is to protect the park resources, but also promote the story," said F. Gus Sanchez, chief of interpretation and resources management at the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. "With the large issues facing the nation today, it's not an accident that interest is growing at this time."

From Aug. 27 through Sept. 30, visitors will also be able to drive into the ranch site in personal vehicles for free after picking up a pass and a car tour CD at the state park visitors center. Sanchez said the bus tours ($6 for adults, and $3 for seniors and students) will resume Oct. 1 while the park service assesses various scenarios for future public access. The presidential office will remain open to the public.

In the office, visitors will find objects that made Johnson feel at home, among them a handcrafted saddle given to him by the president of Mexico and portraits of the family beagles Him and Her that were commissioned by Barbra Streisand. A television set is mounted high in one wall, and there are three desks other than Johnson's in the relatively small space, testimony to the amount of work that was conducted here.

"The Texas White House marked the first time technology - with the TV, airstrip, and communications center - really allowed the president to move to a remote location and do his work there," Sanchez said. "And his daily schedule shows he was a driven workaholic."

To understand the impact of place on the young Johnson, a visit to the national park should start at the visitors center in Johnson City, which was named for a family ancestor. The center offers a small collection of artifacts, two short films, and an informative timeline tracing Johnson's progress from rural Hill Country boyhood to the heights of world power.

"It's clear the roots had a major impact on the man," said Rick Lakin, 55, of Chula Vista, Calif., after touring the center on a recent weekday morning.

A short walk from the visitors center through several acres being restored to their natural prairie state is the Johnson Settlement, where Johnson's grandfather lived in the 1800s while running a short-lived cattle business. A few massive longhorn cattle and a restored dogtrot cabin where Johnson's grandmother hid from marauding Indians remain on the site along with other period structures.

Also in Johnson City is Johnson's boyhood home, which his father, a six-term state legislator, purchased in 1913, when Lyndon was 5. Here, Johnson's mother, one of the few college-educated women in the area, taught her son debating techniques. He also caught the political bug early, following his father on the campaign trail and launching his own political career in 1937 by announcing his candidacy for the US House of Representatives in a speech delivered from the front porch.

Back in Stonewall, visitors entering the national park by either bus or personal vehicle will cross the Pedernales (from the Spanish for "river of flint" and pronounced "purr-din-alice" by native Texans) and pass several key sites in Johnson's life. There is the reconstructed birthplace where his mother always claimed "LBJ discovered America" on Aug. 27, 1908. There is the one-room Junction School that Johnson attended briefly and which served as the backdrop for the signing of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, one of more than 60 education bills passed during Johnson's administration.

Just beyond the Texas White House is an airplane hangar where Johnson's fleet of automobiles - including an unusual Amphicar he drove on both land and water - are on display. Farther out along the airstrip are the show barn and the animal pens and corrals that serve as reminders that this was, and still is, very much a working ranch.

A low wall surrounds the Johnson family cemetery, where the president and many of his family members are buried. Lady Bird is buried next to her husband, but her headstone is not yet in place; his is a simple one of Texas granite. A traditional wreath-laying ceremony will be held here on Aug. 27.

Change will be a constant at the Texas White House, even after the hoopla surrounding the centennial subsides. Sanchez said the park service is seeking funding to open the house in stages during the next four years. The second step will include the living room and dining room, with the bedrooms (including the room where Johnson died) coming later.

The Johnson family is excited about the developments, and the opportunity for the public to learn more about the president and first lady. Luci Baines Johnson, a successful businesswoman and a board member of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation and the wildflower center, has hosted bike tours of the ranch and plans more as a part of that effort.

"We have to focus on what we have that's going to make people want to come back here again and again," she said. "This is a place of great beauty and there is so much to learn."

Still, change can be bittersweet.

"Is it hard to say goodbye to a place where so many important family events took place? Absolutely," Johnson said. "But the ranch was my father's and mother's to give and they wanted to give it to the American people in hopes to inspire others, and because it tells so much of an only-in-America dream."

Doug Warren can be reached at


If You Go

How to get there

Austin, Texas, is the best gateway into LBJ country, since JetBlue has a daily direct flight from Boston. Stonewall and Johnson City are about 65 miles to the west on state Highway 290 and San Marcos is about 30 miles south down Interstate 35.

What to do

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park

Lady Bird Lane, Johnson City

830-868-7128 ext. 244

Daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Visitors center open 8:45 a.m.-5 p.m. Bus tours from state park 10-4 daily. Adults $6; ages 7-17, 62 and older, $3. Aug. 27-Sept. 30 free admission to drive onto ranch site.

A national park in two parts, both worth a visit. The Johnson City section includes a visitors center, LBJ's boyhood home, and the Johnson Settlement of his ancestors. The Stonewall section (below) includes the Texas White House, reconstructed LBJ birthplace, and the family cemetery.

LBJ State Park and Historic Site

Highway 290, Stonewall

830-644-2252 est/parks/lyndon_b_johnson/

Park buildings open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Rest of park accessible to visitors. Free. Visitors center, living history farm, swimming pool, and nature trails along the Pedernales River.

Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum

2313 Red River St., Austin


Daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. except Christmas. Free. Library houses 40,000,000 pages of historical documents relating to the public career of LBJ. The museum includes permanent and temporary exhibits focusing on LBJ and his role in US history.

LBJ Museum of San Marcos

131 North Guadalupe St.

San Marcos


Thursday, Friday, Sunday 1-5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. Free. Exhibits focus on LBJ's years (1927-1930) as a student at Southwest Texas State Teachers College, now Texas State University-San Marcos.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

4801 La Crosse Ave., Austin


Tuesday-Saturday 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Sunday noon-5:30. Open daily in April, which is wildflower season. Closed New Year's Day, July 4th, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Adults $7, age 60 and older and students 13 and older $6, 5-12 $3. A place of great beauty. Gardens display wildflowers and native plants of various regions of Texas. Center is also a research unit of the University of Texas.

Where to stay

There are many lodging options in Austin and the Hill Country city of Fredericksburg, about 15 miles west of Stonewall.

Best Western Johnson City Inn

107 Highways 281 and 290

Johnson City


Conveniently located. Doubles $70-$80.

Where to eat

Silver K Café

290 East Main St.

Johnson City


Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturday breakfast buffet 7-10:30 a.m., Sunday buffet 11-3, homestyle supper menu Sunday-Wednesday 5-9, fine dining menu Thursday-Saturday 5-9. Texas food, Texas music, Texas wine, Texas beer. Honey pecan fried chicken breast with mashed potatoes, salad, and beverage, $7.95.

Whittington's General Store

604 Highway 281 South

Johnson City


Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.- 5:30 p.m., Sunday 11-6. Best jerky around, mesquite smoked and some of it spicy.

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