It’s funny how age and time can change your perspective. As a young 16 year old mainly interested in my life (rather self-centered I guess) I well remember hearing on the car radio that John F. Kennedy had been shot. I also remember the iconic photograph of Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as president with Jackie Kennedy standing next to him. What I do not remember are the politics involved. At this time my parents were Democrats because quite frankly in the small town we lived in one could not vote unless you were a Democrat – there were no Republicans running at that time.
My impression of Lyndon Baines Johnson seemed to be of a haughty Texan but again I was 16 and unfortunately not very interested in politics. Visiting the childhood home and the ranch of LBJ showed a man with a very humble beginning in Johnson City and then a president who loved his retreat at the ranch in Stonewall surrounded by family and friends.
We first visited the museum, got a rundown on what we could see and then took a tour of his childhood home. It was a rather small home for a family of seven. It was restored just as it was when President Johnson lived there. In fact they took out the plumbing and the electricity. I’m not quite sure why that seemed to be important in the restoration though.
President Johnson was the oldest of three sisters and one brother. Their mother made sure all five of her children knew that beauty was only skin-deep but character was what was most important. She had a picture on her mantle that looked like a skull but on close examination you could see a lady with her perfume bottles. In other words, to LBJ’s mother what you see on the outside is not always what is real. There is definitely a lesson for us all to remember in the chaos of today’s world. A copy of that picture is still on the mantle in the home place and copies are for sale in the gift shop.
After touring the house we took a walk to the Settlement where Johnson’s grandfather and great uncle started a cattle droving headquarters. The cattle drives were long and difficult and sometimes deadly. In fact, Johnson’s uncle drowned at a river crossing but it was also very difficult for those families left at home. There is a story of Johnson’s grandmother hiding with her baby beneath her house while Indians search her home and after finding no one they just left with the horses from the barn.
The following is a description taken from one of the plaques in the Settlement House: “Long hours, dangerous work and little pay left no doubt that on a trail drive everything took second place to the cattle – even human life. Still, only the best men went: about one drover for every 175 head, a “tech” cook, and horse wrangler in charge of the remuda. Between 1867 and 1871, Sam and Tom Johnson made four drives out of the Hill country, up the Chisholm Trail to Abilene. The herds left in early spring to take advantage of new grass and reach the railhead before winter.”
We stopped next at the home of Johnson’s grandparents, Sam and Eliza. Sam built Eliza a dogtrot cabin which reminded us of the shotgun houses that we saw in Louisiana. It’s a cabin with a shaded breeze way through which a dog could trot! The breezeway was used for storage and also for folks who sought relief from the hot Texas weather. There were two furnished rooms on either side where you could see the period furniture. There was also a taped narration done by Lucy Banes Johnson explaining everything.
I finally got to see some long horned cattle as there are a few right there on the settlement. They boringly ate their hay and paid us no attention.
Our next top was back to Stonewall to see the ranch. Interestingly enough the ranch is divided into two parks, one state and one national. Within the state park is a museum, a gift shop and the Sauer Beckmann Living History farm. Across the the Pedernales River is the LBJ ranch operated by the National Park Service. As we rode along the river we saw several people who were fishing. We approached the ranch from a very long winding road which passed the School House where Johnson attended through 5th grade ( the school only went up to the 5th grade so after Johnson’s 5th year they moved to Johnson City so he could graduate from high school).
We made a brief stop at the Johnson family cemetery. It is fenced in and there was a sign asking that no one enter. I was surprised to see the monuments for both President Johnson and Lady Bird as they were not big ornate “presidential” moments but rather in keeping with the other family markers in the cemetery. At a distance we could see the beautiful Lutheran church that Johnson sometimes attended. Next to it is the Head Start School which Johnson started.
We rode along the road and noticed that cows and deer were grazing and did not appear to be fenced in. It was obvious that they crossed the road at times! I was astounded to see so many deer herds as well as sheep and goats.
We eventually arrived at the ranch and there was a large airplane, call “Air Force One-Half” because of its size. We could see into the cabin and there was only room for a few people and it only had a crew of three, two in the cockpit and a flight attendant.
The gift shop is in the old hanger and it is fairly large with a lot of memorabilia that can be purchased. They also have a lectern with the presidential seal on it. Jerry and I both had pictures taken there. When he took mine he left off the presidential seal. I was going to surprise everyone by being photographed as the first woman president!
Next on the agenda was a tour of his house. The house had 72 phones when the Johnsons lived in it as Johnson always wanted one right by him. There was even one beside his chair at the dining table. We only saw the first floor but it is decorated authentically. They must have really liked yellow because there is a lot of yellow there! Throughout the home are gifts that were given to him by dignitaries and the house is also filled with family pictures. It is a lovely home but it is just that – a home. Nothing particularly fancy or over the top. One can see why he loved to return there for rejuvenation. I was particularly interested in the papers for two walking horses that he owned, one sired by Merry Boy. The names were very familiar to me and brought back a memory from my childhood days when my dad and I rode and showed walking horses.
President Johnson spent much of his political career trying to lessen for all Americans the hard realities that he knew as a youth: no electricity, poor medical care, inadequate education and prejudice. He actually signed more education bills than any president before or after.
We like to visit the homes of presidents and have been to several but this is first one that we have visited who was president during our lifetime. Although it is history to many it’s not really history to us and fortunately gives us insight to the man behind the Stetson.
We left the ranch and headed back to the coach with a planned stop at the Texas Rangers station but they were closed and the gate was closed as well. A quick stop at Walmart and then we headed on back to get dinner and get everything prepared to leave for Comstock tomorrow.