Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park celebrates the life of a man triumphed with the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act, declared a War on Poverty and the establishment of a Great Society and at the end of his presidency faced protesters chanting “Hey Hey LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” The park showcases his humble beginnings, and provides some insight to his character, as well as the character of his environmentalist wife Lady Bird.
The Park has two units, one in Johnson City that preserves LBJ’s boyhood home and a living history center illustrating what life was like when Johnson’s ancestors first settled in the area. The other unit, about fourteen miles down the road in Stonewall, is the family ranch LBJ bought from an aunt in the forties. When we pulled up into Johnson City in late spring, the rangers advised us to drive out to the ranch first to avoid the heat and crowds that come in the afternoon. “Go out to the ranch before it gets too bad, and then come visit the museum in the AC during the afternoon.” Since it was already well into the 90’s this was good advice.
The drive out to the ranch takes you through the gorgeous Texas Hill Country. The Lyndon B Johnson State Park and Historic Site where you need to stop and pick up a permit to drive out to the ranch. We didn’t stay long at the State Park, which features a dogtrot cabin from the region’s first German settlers. Live oaks and wildflowers surround the parking lot, with a stand or two of cactus reminding me that this is a dry land. Swallows swooped around me as I bird-watched while my wife picked up the driving permit.
The driving tour features many pull-outs where you can read signs about the ranch without having to get out of the car. These pull-outs provided some great birdwatching stops. My wife would read the signs to me while I scanned the fields for elusive Texas specialties. Scissor-tailed flycatchers were everywhere, as were deer, a speedy jackrabbit and descendants of LBJ’s prize-winning cattle. When the Johnsons donated the ranch to the National Park Service, they stipulated that the land needed to remain a working ranch, and the Herefords are everywhere.
Along the road, we stopped at LBJ’s birthplace – a reconstructed dogtrot cabin where an endless loop plays of Lady Bird narrating the story of the glorious day of LBJ’s birth. LBJ started and ended life in places not far removed. Across the road is the private family cemetery where he, Lady Bird and his brothers and sisters are buried. The cemetery is nestled under a stand of live oaks, with birds singing in the trees and deer standing off in the distance.
Just down the road sits the one-room school house where Johnson attended school, and later signed a landmark bill that established HeadStart. There is a picnic table set up in the location where President Johnson signed the bill with his first teacher sitting at his side. It was a great photo op. I didn’t know that Johnson pushed through HeadStart legislation, or that he did so much to try to improve the lives of all Americans. Johnson was a New Deal Democrat and idolized FDR.
Another stop along the way is at the Ranch’s Show Barn. It was empty of people, but there were some cows and signs around explaining ranching and the income the ranch generated. The cows lay in the dirt and chewed their cud. My wife offered to take a picture of me sitting in LBJ’s saddle just for this blog post. I took a picture of some brushes in a box instead. This was not the most interesting part of the day.
More exciting was the hangar where the jet that the Johnsons took to the ranch is parked. The runway couldn’t handle Air Force One, so they used this tiny jet to get to the ranch from Austin. The Johnsons called it Air Force One Half. One at a time you could climb the stairs and check out the cockpit and seating area of the plane. This was a very popular activity and photo op for all the visitors at the park. The man in front of me in line had to be dragged away by his wife. I really liked going into the plane, even though it wasn’t Air Force One, and didn’t seem much different than any other plane, except that the seats had a lot more leg room.
The visitor center near the hangar highlighted the progress of the civil rights movement, from Reconstruction through President Obama’s inauguration. I had learned in school that Kennedy had pushed the Civil Rights Act, and Johnson only finished the job that JFK started. At the Center I learned that Johnson played a much bigger role in making sure that the legislation actually passed, although the activism of African Americans forced the government to act. LBJ said that only a Southerner could get civil rights legislation passed, but at the same time he voted down civil rights while in the House and Senate. I’ve started Robert Caro’s four volume biography of LBJ. I am one chapter in, but I am looking forward to learning about what LBJ really believed about civil rights.
“All The World Is Welcome Here”
LBJ called his ranch the Texas White House. Like most Presidents, he had his escape from Washington and spent a lot of time away from the city. Rather than spending his days relaxing and golfing, LBJ spent his time on his ranch applying political pressure, entertaining foreign dignitaries, and making deals.
Touring the house was like touring my grandmother’s house, except for a few small details like a Secret Service call button and command center. My grandmother owned the same white-washed wood furniture, and could have had the same lemon yellow kitchen counter tops and busy wall paper. The kitchen was very sixties. The ranger told us that the day JKF was murdered, preparations were taking place for the Kennedys’ arrival at the ranch. I was very distracted by the decorating, and couldn’t focus on the assassination story the ranger told.
Lady Bird lived there until shortly before her death in 2007. The ranger let us know that her daughters fixed up the kitchen to be more modern with nice cabinets and maybe even granite counter-tops and stainless steel appliances. The National Park Service renovated all the rooms in the house back to the 1960’s Texas White House glory. Unfortunately for us, the main rooms of the house – the living room and LBJ’s office were under restoration when we visited, so we didn’t see where he conducted his work. Instead we toured Lady Bird’s rooms – the excellent yellow kitchen, and her sitting room where she retreated from entertaining State guests to catch her favorite show Gunsmoke. I left the ranch with a much stronger impression of who she was as person. LBJ remains a little more of a mystery.
The bathroom was another reminder that LBJ worked compulsively. It also looked just like my grandparents’, except my grandparents did not have a phone in it for making deals. LBJ installed a phone into the bathroom wall so he could sit and get some work done at the same time. The Texas White House was a working White House. LBJ didn’t clear brush at his ranch, as much as he made deals poolside.
The tour then took us through the Johnsons’ walk-in closets with their monogramed shirts and jackets (LBJ’s underwear!) and into their separate bedrooms. Again, he conducted business at all times, and Lady Bird often would wake up in the middle of the night and find a meeting happening around her bed. This resulted in separate bedrooms. In his bedroom, LBJ had three TV’s installed in the bedroom where he could watch all networks at the same time.
Lady Bird’s was the only room that was left as it was on the day she died. It still looked very much like my grandparent’s bedroom, except for the gifts from foreign dignitaries. The shelves were full of gifts she received from the German delegation – Meissen ceramics of birds – but also a sweet poem on the wall that one of her daughters wrote for her after LBJ’s death. Except for it’s size, the house (or what we saw of it) looks like a regular mid-sixties house. We will have to go back at some point to see the power centers of the house.
After the tour, we walked the grounds. The house is surrounded by live oaks and grassy open spaces down to the banks of the Pedernales River. The river was green and still. A wooden swing hung from a live oak. You could imagine Lady Bird sitting there. Out here you could begin to get a sense of her environmental ethic.
The Boyhood Home
Back in Johnson City, we toured LBJ’s boyhood home. We learned the LBJ’s mother really did say his birthday as the most glorious day in her life, just like the endless tape loop in the birthplace told us. She told Lyndon that his birthday was the day that gave her life meaning and restored joy to her life. LBJ told a story that his grandfather rode out and announced to the town that a United States Senator had been born. Whether or not this story is true, it points to a lot of pressure for a young boy to succeed.
His grandfather was right, LBJ did become a US Senator. He learned politics by watching his father, a Texas state representative who conducted political deals and met with constituents on his front porch. His mother didn’t like her children to hear the crude talk from the rough men came to visit his father. So, little Lyndon often climbed under the porch to hear the men talk. His days as a political operative started early.
The Johnson family wasn’t well off but not dirt poor either. They had running water, unlike most families in the Texas Hill Country at the turn of the 20th century. An outhouse stood in the far corner of the lot, but Rebekah Johnson didn’t need to draw water from the well each morning. I thought back to the cactus that dot the fields, and realized what a luxury this was in such a dry land. The Park Ranger tour guide told us that compared to others in the Hill Country LBJ’s boyhood years were well off, but once LBJ made it to Washington and saw how people lived there, he felt he had grown up poor.
At some point, Johnson’s father lost everything and LBJ lived with the fear that he too would die penniless. Perhaps this helped him have empathy for the poor. In his congressional election, Johnson made a campaign promise to bring electricity to the Hill Country. The region had been determined too rural to make electrification affordable (just like broadband access today) and so life there resembled an earlier time. Everything had to be done by hand, and the advances of the age hadn’t quite made it to the area. Johnson wiled his way and managed to deliver on the promise of rural electrification, which brought huge improvements to the people of his district, and made him immensely popular.
The Johnson City visitor center spent more time highlighting the achievements and downfall of LBJ’s presidency. My wife and I kept saying to each other, “I didn’t know LBJ passed Medicare,” or “I don’t know he appointed Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.” There was just enough information to be impressed with his accomplishments, and want to know more.