A visit to Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park allows a person to understand why our 36th U.S. president chose to return and spend the remainder of his life in the Hill Country of Texas following his five-year term in the White House.
The Hill Country was where Lyndon Johnson had been born and raised. It is a rugged and beautiful land with a favorable climate that draws tourists and retirees, while at the same time retaining many of those who are born here. Insert a comfortable home overlooking the Pedernales River into this land, and it is reason to believe that neither the former president nor his wife would have been happy in any other place.
The two of us first visited the ranch many years ago prior to the time when the home was open for guided tours by National Park Service personnel. At the time Lady Bird (a moniker bestowed upon her prior to meeting Lyndon) was still alive and frequently stayed at the ranch, although she spent considerable time in Austin. During that time visitors could only view the exterior of the home from a bus that was boarded at the state park visitor center across the river.
We visited again about ten years ago when Lady Bird, by then quite feeble, came to the adjacent state park and lit the park’s outdoor Christmas tree. Being present that cold December evening was quite a thrill. We visited again in 2011 during a drive to Big Bend National Park.
Our most recent visit was in mid-November of this year. These two most recent visits followed Lady Bird’s 2007 death, thus allowing us on each occasion to enjoy a guided tour of the Johnson house. Only the home’s first floor is currently open to tours. The NPS is at work renovating the second floor that is likely to be open for limited tours within a year or so.
The home is furnished with the Johnson’s possessions giving visitors the impression that Lady Bird may be waiting to greet them in the next room. We had this same feeling when visiting Dwight Eisenhower’s Gettysburg home and F.D.R’s home in Hyde Park, New York.
The goal of the National Park Service has been to restore the home to its appearance in 1963-69 when LBJ was president. We were told that whenever Lady Bird replaced something in the home, the National Park Service would squirrel it away the discarded item so that it could be placed back in the home at a later day.
According to our guide, Lady Bird’s bedroom has been left virtually untouched since her death. One interesting note about the second floor; Lady Bird devoted considerable time and money to redecorate an upstairs bedroom in preparation for a 1963 visit by then President John Kennedy and wife Jacqueline. Fate intervened on the date of the scheduled visit when President Kennedy was shot and killed during the Dallas motorcade.
Improvements in communications and transportation – the ranch included 72 phone lines and a 6,400-foot airstrip – allowed the president to conduct a substantial amount of the country’s business from the ranch. During his 5-year presidency, he spent 490 days here. Foreign dignitaries, cabinet members, and other government officials were frequent guests at the ranch where LBJ was most comfortable.
A large part of the Hill Country’s emergence from public obscurity resulted from national news coverage originating from the Texas White House during Johnson’s presidency.
The national historical park is comprised of two sections; the ranch and LBJ’s boyhood home in nearby Johnson City. The ranch section includes Junction School where the future president first attended school at age 4, a reconstructed birthplace home, the grandfather’s home, an open hanger showcasing LBJ’s government jet, and a show barn where visitors can view Hereford cattle descended from cattle that were on the ranch when LBJ lived here.
The historical park continues to be a working ranch with approximately 100 head of cattle. LBJ and Lady Bird, along with other family members are buried in the family cemetery that is a short distance from the ranch house. The Johnson family continues to retain burial rights to the cemetery that is maintained by the National Park Service.
The Johnson City unit includes LBJ’s boyhood home along with restored 1880s structures scattered along an oval walking trail. A general store on Main Street contains exhibits related to the town’s impact on the future president. A visitor center offers exhibits and two films, one each about LBJ and Lady Bird.
The visitor contact station for the ranch is on the south side of the Pedernales River in the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site. The contact station is where visitors begin the LBJ Ranch tour.
The state park, approximately equal in size to the NPS-administered ranch, also has a museum and a living history farm as well as recreational opportunities for hiking, swimming, fishing, and kayaking.
Guided tours of the home cost $3 and last about 30 minutes. There is no charge for entrance to either the state park or the national historical park. Access to the rest of the ranch is self-guided.
The historical park is the site of numerous special events including the upcoming 44th annual LBJ tree lighting on December 15. Events scheduled for next year include a kite day in March, a fishing day in June, and a birthday celebration on August 27 when LBJ would have been 106 years old.