AUSTIN, Texas — Bryan Cranston’s Tony Award-winning turn as President Lyndon Baines Johnson in “All the Way” (staged at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theatre before its move to Broadway) is the latest in a recent cultural LBJ resurgence. It began in late 2013 with the many retrospectives marking the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination and continued with 50th-year commemorations of LBJ’s signing of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. There was the memorable sight of Liev Schreiber as LBJ conducting the country’s business while on the toilet in the movie “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” And let’s not forget the priceless audio clip unearthed by “The Rachel Maddow Show” of LBJ ordering pants over the telephone from Texas tailor Joe Haggar.
But while there may be an uptick in LBJ interest, the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park is a place where the man’s formidable presence has always loomed large. The sprawling site along the Pedernales River in the heart of Texas Hill Country is about an hour’s drive from both Austin and San Antonio and well worth the trip.
The LBJ Presidential Library in Austin proper is a great place to become immersed in the Johnson presidency and in the tumult of that era. The LBJ state park and ranch offer something else. From the farmhouse where he was born in 1908 (and which he rebuilt in 1964 for use as a guesthouse) to the Texas White House with its “Mad Men”-era decor to the lush meadows where cattle roam to the cemetery where LBJ is buried alongside his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, the ranch spans the whole of LBJ’s life. It’s an impressive legacy to a native son who, in true Texas fashion, never did anything quietly or modestly.
The park, which is free, has two sections separated by about 14 miles. The first, with LBJ’s boyhood home and Visitors Center, is in Johnson City, a tiny town named after LBJ’s father’s cousin, James Polk Johnson. The LBJ Ranch is a short drive away near Stonewall. At the entrance, one can obtain a free driving permit to the ranch, which is managed by the National Park Service. To see everything, expect to spend the day. The best way to visit is a self-guided tour in your own car; the park sells a CD for $10 (the fee includes one admission to the Texas White House). Pop it into your car’s player and it provides information while you travel the tour route.
After seeing some exhibits and two films, “LBJ the President” and “Lady Bird Johnson” at the Visitors Center, one can stroll to the nearby restored farmhouse that was Johnson’s home from age 5 until he was 19. LBJ’s father, Sam Ealy Johnson Jr., bought the house in 1913 when Johnson City had a population of 300 and no electricity. Alexander Shane, the park ranger who conducted the tour the day I visited, noted that Johnson’s life spanned “gaslight to space flight.” Johnson was fond of sayinghe was of humble origins; the house’s airy sleeping porch, high ceilings, and spacious front porch on which LBJ announced his candidacy in 1937 for the US House of Representatives, belie that notion. It was in this house that Johnson learned to read and write from his mother, Rebekah Baines Johnson, one of the few college-educated women in the area who taught local farm girls and instilled in her eldest son a passion for education. Besides a wealth of information on LBJ’s background, Ranger Shane even offered his personal favorite of stage and screen portrayals of the 36th president: Michael Gambon in the 2002 HBO film “Path to War.”
From there, head 14 miles west to the ranch. A permit and tour route map from the Visitors Center takes you to LBJ’s reconstructed birthplace, and to the nearby one-room Junction School that Johnson attended at age 4 and where he returned in 1965 to sign the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act with his favorite teacher by his side. Across the road is the private Johnson Family Cemetery (it can be viewed over a stone wall) where generations of the Johnson and Baines families are buried beneath towering oaks. After LBJ’s death in 1973 at 64, Lady Bird lived at the ranch part time until her death in 2007 at 94.
When the Johnsons donated the ranch to the public, it was with the stipulation that the ranch remain a working one and not a “sterile relic of the past.” Along the winding dirt roads, cattle and deer graze, and acres of wildflowers including Indian paintbrush and Texas bluebonnets turn the meadows various hues of pinks and purples. These wildflowers bloom from mid-March through April, the most popular time to visit the site.
LBJ in 1957 (by then the majority leader in the US Senate) bought additional land on the property as he sought to cultivate the image of a gentleman rancher for the national political stage. “He wanted to be seen as a businessman instead of a small-town politician,” says Clint Herriman, the National Parks Service ranch hand who tends to the Hereford cattle, descendants of LBJ’s original herd. There was nothing the president enjoyed more than driving up to the barn in his Lincoln Continental to show off his cattle to visiting dignitaries. The cattle at the ranch are kept in ’60s vintage: bred to be short and fat. Herefords today are bred to be big and lean, says Herriman. As was done at the ranch back in the 1960s, the cattle are branded on their horns, not their hides, a rare practice even back in the ’60s because it must be done annually. “It looks good but it isn’t practical,” says Herriman.
The Johnsons gave 700 acres to the National Parks Service in 1972. The rest is still owned by the family: Both daughters, Lynda and Luci, have homes there and the family property is managed by Luci’s son, Lyndon Nugent. Former employees and ranch hands still live on the grounds, offering history lessons and anecdotes if visitors spot them or for those intrepid enough to knock on a door. Herriman says the wife of the former head rancher has lived in the same house since the 1960s, after she complained to LBJ that their first home on the ranch was too small for a family of five.
With the kind of personal touch that makes the tour insightful and entertaining, Herriman recounts how LBJ said to his wife, “ ‘Bird, go over there and see what she’s talking about.’ ”
Lady Bird did so and agreed that the house was inadequate for a growing family. LBJ promptly had a new, though still modest, house built.
During his presidency, Johnson spent much time at the site’s century-old farmhouse, which reporters dubbed the “Texas White House.” The 20-minute tour of the ground floor includes the dining room where Johnson, at the head of the table, could see the three black-and-white televisions (tuned into the major networks) across the room; Johnson’s office with its turquoise leather recliner and clunky multi-line telephone; and the master bedroom where LBJ died of the last of his several heart attacks.
Perhaps most memorable is the walk through the avocado and yellow kitchen. It was here that on Nov. 22, 1963, the Johnsons’ cook pulled a batch of pecan pies from the oven as she readied for the impending visit of President Kennedy and the first lady. A soap opera on the nearby portable TV was interrupted with the news that JFK had been shot and killed in Dallas. One can imagine the sudden change in the homey atmosphere as the staff realized that they now worked for the president of the United States.
For more information go to www.nps.gov/lyjo/index.htm.