Whether or not you choose to follow the audio tour, if you drive around on the ranch, eventually you get to the Texas White House. Park on the taxiway next to the presidential hangar, where you can pay two dollars to tour the house. Definitely worth it! I was one of three people on the tour, and found it fascinating. Just imagining all the people who sat under the Council Oak to discuss some of the most important legislation of the LBJ era...and seeing the lovely formal dining room, where Lady Bird had done Texas wildflowers petit point chair covers, but had to yield to LBJ's insistence that he sit in an office chair upholstered in cow-hide, with a telephone installed just under the table at his left knee! (You are not supposed to take pictures inside the house, but our guide was kind enough to allow me to photograph this.)
The original century-old rock farmhouse was greatly enlarged over the years, and the place is bigger than it looks. It features a glorious view of the Pedernales River. An immense live oak provides shade in much of the "front yard" while the side yard features an in-ground pool. The family donated the property to the National Park Service in 1972, but Mrs. Johnson retained the right to use the home until her death. Since then, the "Texas Oval Office" has been restored to the condition it was in during Johnson's presidency. Notice the bust of President Eisenhower behind the desk -- it turns out that Ike and LBJ were both born in Texas, and LBJ admired the general. In the formal living room, note the three television sets. Back in the day, there were only three networks, so each television was tuned in to one of them; LBJ obsessively monitored news media and hated to miss any photo or mention of himself.
Although you are permitted to walk the grounds of the White House without being on a tour, you cannot enter the fenced yard without a guide. There is a small gift shop featuring books and DVDs about the Johnson presidency, as well as needlepoint kits and wildflower seed and other souvenirs.
Tours are available from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM daily.
I'll admit I was a little dubious when the ranger at the Lyndon B. Johnson National Park handed me a CD and told me to simply play it and follow the directions. But this was a wonderful way to learn about and see the ranch which encompasses not only the "Texas White House" (a separate ticket, walking tour is available there) but also the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm, the Junction School attended by the President when he was only four years old, a reconstructed LBJ birthplace, the Johnson family cemetery, the Sam Ealy Johnson, Sr. farmhouse (he was LBJ's grand-daddy), the Show Barn, and the hangar.
As I began my tour, the first surprising thing to me was: it is really beautiful. You can see why LBJ loved this country. The second surprise was how much he enjoyed humor. The original entrance to the ranch was on a low-water crossing directly under a dam and spillover on the Pedernales River, so guests would have to drive into the water to reach the ranch! (Now that entrance is closed, and you drive about a mile downstream to cross a bridge.) The third was that the ranch maintained a lot of the gift animals presented during his presidency, which explained some kudus frolicking next to the Hereford cattle, a single elk grazing in one of the fields, and the funniest sight of all -- a group of deer being chased by a couple of ostriches!
All of the pastures are open (though there are cattle guards) and the animals wander around freely, so you have to drive pretty slowly. But you want to, anyway, because each turn of the road unfolds another lovely vista.
What's a visitor to do? There are two Lyndon B. Johnson Historical Parks under the aegis of the National Park Service, although separated by some fourteen miles, plus an LBJ State Park and Historic Site. This situation reflects the vision of the President and his wife, because the historic properties straddle the Pedernales River and cluster in Johnson City itself, and also because they wished to preserve and interpret their beloved Texas Hill Country.
But the wealth of resources may make it difficult to know what to see and do if the visitor has only a limited amount of time to spend. For the moment (June 2011), I'm going to suggest you begin with the Johnson City Visitor Center and Park Headquarters, because (a) the bathrooms are functional, which they aren't at the Ranch site, and (b) there are a couple of interesting films and fine exhibits which introduce you to the Johnson heritage and elucidate what you'll see later on your walking (of the Johnson City) or driving (of the Ranch) tours. Both Visitors Centers have expansive gift shops where Johnson-specific and Texas Hill Country souvenirs are available.
The Johnson City park contains LBJ's boyhood home as well as the Johnson Settlement, which has "restored 19th century structures tracing the evolution of the Texas Hill Country from the open range cattle kingdom days of Lyndon Johnson's grandfather, Sam Ealy Johnson, Sr., to the local ranching and farming of more recent times," according to the NPS brochure.
Admission is free. Open daily, 8:45 AM to 5:00 PM. Tours of the boyhood home, also free, are offered between 9:30 and 4:00, except during the lunch hour when the home is closed.
The Sauer-Beckmann farm recreates day-to-day life as it was in 1918. Johann and Christine Sauer settled the farm in 1869 and eventually had ten children. One of those, Augusta Sauer Lindig, was the midwife at the birth of President Johnson.
Park interpreters costumed in period dress now maintain the working farm, and talk with visitors about the activities in progress at various farm buildings. It is open daily from 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM. Free admission. People are free to wander at leisure through the barns, and visit the animals.
Outdoor sculpture isn't exactly something I associate with the Texas Hill Country, but in 1999, an Italian sculptor decided to make Johnson City his home. He constructed galleries, a fine arts library and studios where he continues to create artwork. The balance of the 140-acre ranch is devoted to seventy massive outdoor sculptures created by both Benini and by his local and international friends. Although the Foundation is closed on Mondays, which was the day I happened to be in Johnson City, it is possible to view many of the sculptures from the adjacent roadways.
You can drive or walk on trails leading to many of the sculptures.
The Benini Foundation galleries and sculpture ranch are open from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM, Tuesday through Saturday.
The visitor's center of the historical park is a good place to begin your visit to Johnson City. After viewing the exhibits and the video detailing the life of the former US President, it is a short walk to the Lyndon B. Johnson boyhood home. Also close by is Johnson Settlement, the old ranch complex built by Johnson's grandfather, for whom the town is named.
Exhibits tell the story of the USA's 35th president. While few would deny that LBJ was a very shrewd politician and a hard man to deal with, it is also true that he accomplished a great deal for the common man during his years in state and national office. He was a prime figure in civil rights advances in America, but was also responsible for much of the US's prolonged stay in the Viet Nam conflict. In spite of your views regarding Johnson, this visitor's center provides a lot of insight into a difficult but important era in the life of our country.
Lyndon Johnson's family moved to this modest wood-frame home in Johnson City in 1913, shortly after the boy's fifth birthday. He grew to adulthood in this house and was profoundly influenced by his father, a state legislator, and his mother who had a passion for education.
The home is open for tours led by knowledgeable people who knew the family and are well-versed in their lives.
This room belonged to young Lyndon. One of the interesting anecdotes related by the tour guide told of the long hours Lyndon would spend in this room listening to his father and fellow politicians talking and hammering out deals on the adjoining front porch. LBJ learned well, as he became a tough bargainer.
Viewing the kitchen of this modest home reminds us that Lyndon Johnson did not come from a rich or aristocratic background, but from a hardworking and humble family. Visiting the home is also a look back in time to small town and rural America of the 1920's.
Lyndon Johnson's grandfather and great-uncle established a cattle drovers headquarters here in the 1860's. Beside the original log cabin (built in 1856 in the dog-trot style), we visited 1880 stone farm buildings, exhibit center, and saw a few Texas Longhorn cattle grazing in the pasture.
Nature preserve features waterfalls on the Pedernales River, animal and bird life, fishing, swimming, camping, picknicking, hiking.
See my travelogue for additional photos.
This handsome old courthouse, made of limestone, continues to serve as office building for Blanco County.