WHAT IS IT?
Two sites located 14 miles apart in the rural Texas hill country that tell the life story of our 36th president, Lyndon Baines Johnson. The Johnson City portion includes his boyhood home and commemorates the 19th-century Texas ranching industry. The second section includes LBJís Birthplace, his Texas White House Complex, his working cattle ranch and his gravesite.
While not breathtakingly beautiful, one can see why LBJ found peace and comfort at his Ranch. This is the landscape of rural Texas. It looks exactly like you think it does: hilly, intermittently brown and green, dotted with cattle and tumbleweed. Sing a few bars of Home on the Range and a vision of LBJís Ranch will emerge in your mind.
The Johnson City portion of the NHP is a living history farm, complete with costumed interpreters going about their daily chores. We walked into Sam Ealy Johnson Sr.ís cabin just as its caretakers were about to enjoy the lunch they had prepared over the open hearth. The smell of fresh bread and pie and the glow of the embers turned the historical structure into a cozy home and gave us a feeling of warmth that would come in handy as we toured the barns and other buildings on the farm.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (6/10)
While LBJís name adorns the Park, the Site goes beyond the life and times of our 36th president, detailing and commemorating the history of American cattle ranching and life on the Texas frontier.
The Johnson City Districtís focus is on the legendary cattle driving lifestyle of 19th-century Texas, the history immortalized in great westerns like Red River, Lonesome Dove and Rawhide. The restored buildings on LBJís grandfatherís open range cattle ranch just feel like Texas.
LBJís working ranch, cars, show barn, one-room schoolhouse, and birthplace are all preserved in the LBJ Ranch District. LBJís final resting place is in his familyís traditional cemetery, on Site and situated along the gentle Pedernales River. He passed away in 1973, just 4 years after leaving office. He spent those four years in the Texas White House, watching over the Parkís establishment (and even giving tours), driving around the grounds in his convertible Lincoln Continentals, relaxing and growing his hair long.
You can see the Texas White House from the outside but tours are not permitted. Lady Bird Johnson still lives in the property. She is 93 years old.
The small number of visitors at the Johnson City portion of the Site meant that we had room to wander the farm and a personal tour of his Boyhood Home.
We found out where everyone was as we searched for a parking space at the LBJ State Park and Historic Site, which houses the Ranch District of the NHP. Most of the seats in the theatre were full and some of the bookstoreís aisles were a bit snug. There were few children. The median age of visitors appeared to be around 55.
We had no trouble securing two seats on the next bus tour and spent the following hour and a half with a pleasant set of people.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)
Johnson City is located 45 miles west of Austin, Texas along U.S. Route 290. Both portions of the Park are just off 290. The LBJ ranch is 14 miles directly west of the Johnson City district. The quaint and well touristed town of Fredericksburg, Texas is just 16 miles west of the Ranch. Fredericksburg is home to the popular Adm. Nimitz National Museum of the Pacific War and many German restaurants. If Weiner schnitzel and knockwurst is not your thing, the nearby town of Llano stakes its claim as the center of the Texas BBQ universe.
Nothing short of a definitive collection of LBJ-related books, a few of them are even signed by the author. Good or bad, if it has been written about LBJ and in print, it is probably here. The LBJ NHP bookstore is terrific. All the shelves are thickly stacked with books; there is no filler. Sections cover Texas history, cowboys, first ladies, local cookbooks, the 60ís and Vietnam.
There are over two dozen books that deal with the Presidency in general as well as biographies of nearly every American president. Michael was interested in the James A. Garfield bio but it is not the right time. There are more George Bush books here than in his own Presidential Library.
The store also pays homage to Lady Bird Johnson, selling packets of wildflower seeds, floral stationary and quilting kits. The Bookstore also includes suggestion cards from Rangers if you are unsure about what to buy. Whenever we encounter a bookstore of such caliber, we know that our Museum experience will be carefully researched, knowledgeable and substantive. We appreciate the careful thought that went into shelving the stacks.
The Johnson City part of LBJ NHP is free.
LBJís birthplace and working ranch must be seen via an NPS narrated bus tour. This one hour and twenty minute guided tour costs $6 per person.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)
A smiling Ranger helped us plan our day at the Johnson City Visitor Center. Since it was a drizzly chilly morning, she recommended we spend some time in the VC to warm up, then try to time our walk through the farm to coincide with a tour of the Boyhood Home. We were escorted through the Boyhood Home by another Ranger, whom we saw at the Bookstore later that day.
LBJís Ranch was sufficiently staffed as well. It was hard to tell who was who in the VC and Bookstore (NPS Ranger? State Park employee? Volunteer?) but we never got lost and always had someone to ask if we had a question. Our bus tour was narrated by a young Ranger from southeastern Pa.
There is a wide assortment of learning experiences to enjoy at LBJ NHP, all well done and enjoyable. You could be here for an entire day. We were and still could not see everything.
The Johnson City Visitor Center recounts the political life of LBJ in a more comprehensive way than his Presidential Library and Museum in Austin. Two films show every half hour, one on LBJís political life and one on Lady Bird. A self-guided walking trail leads you to the Boyhood home and around the historical cattle ranch.
Guided tours of the Boyhood home are given as staffing permits (ours was terrific) and there are costumed interpreters ready to answer questions at the Ranch. Displays at the Ranchís exhibit center go through the history of Texas cattle drives. And all that is free! Thus far, no National Park Site has offered more tours at such a high level for no cost than the Johnson City District of LBJ NHP.
The most wonderful class provided at the Site is the film shown at the LBJ Ranch District Visitor Center. See the film before you go on the bus tour. The film is a guided tour of the ranch done by LBJ himself. It is touching, tragic and very personal.
Visitors hear more of LBJ during segments of the guided bus tour. The bus tour combines a scripted narration with segments from an audio tape which can be purchased in the Bookstore. Stories told by Johnson and members of his family coincide with where they took place on the Ranch. We listened to LBJ laugh about the practical jokes he played on members of his Cabinet as we admired his collection of cars and his daughter ruefully admit to ruining an ambassadorís visit by fishing the stocked pond dry.
We rode through the Ranch stopping at LBJís Birthplace, which he renovated and used as a guesthouse, his final resting place in the family cemetery, and the Show Barn, where Herefords are bred to look just like they did when Johnson was alive: shorter and stockier than current breeds. Day-old calves blinked and yawned as we admired them reminding us that this section of the Site was still a working ranch.
But wait, there is more. Attached to the LBJ Ranch VC is a new museum dedicated to the farming life in the Texas Hill country. We think this museum is a part of the LBJ State Park and Historic Site. It is free. We did not have time to go to the adjoining Sauer-Beckmann Farm (part of the LBJ State Park), a free Living History museum where costumed interpreters demonstrate the rural farming life of German immigrants circa 1915.
All of the films we watched were superb. The guided tours of Johnsonís Boyhood Home combined with the bus tour of the Texas White House complex and Ranch painted a portrait of a complex individual who enjoyed so many simple things in life, nothing more than the Texas Hill Country where he was born and raised.
As the bus rolled through more rugged sections of the Ranch and back across the Pedernales River towards the parking lot, we learned one more thing about LBJ: his favorite song. Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head from the soundtrack of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid concluded the tour and left us both a little melancholy.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10)
The LBJ NHP takes visitors through the complete life cycle of our 36th president who was an active participant in the formation of the park. Johnson opened his life and his lifestyle to the American public. But the appeal of this Site goes beyond the history of one man.
LBJ NHP is as Texas as it gets.
P.S. - Deer and antelope really do play here.
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