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For five years in the 1960s, an unassuming ranch house in Central Texas held almost as much importance as the big, white one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.. At the time, both were the residences of the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson. Now, the house and the area surrounding it have been turned into LBJ State Park, a combination working farm and group of historical sites.
The entire complex of LBJ-related sites includes both LBJ State Park and Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park with attractions 14 miles apart in Stonewall and Johnson City, Texas, just down the road from Fredericksburg. To be honest, despite my visit, I’m not certain where the state park stops and the national park begins, but it’s a distinction that doesn’t impact the average visitor. If your time is limited, head to Stonewall.
Visiting LBJ Ranch
The visit to Stonewall includes a self-guided tour of the LBJ Ranch that takes you to important places from LBJ’s childhood. There is a replica of his birthplace, and you can see his grandparents’ house, although it is not open for visiting. You can also see inside the one-room schoolhouse that dates from 1910 where the President attended school and learned to read as a young boy.
You’ll also drive by the Johnson family cemetery where LBJ and Lady Bird are buried along with other members of the Johnson family. You can walk up to the locked cemetery gates, but visitors aren’t allowed to enter.
The winding drive takes you through the middle of a working farm where descendants of LBJ’s Hereford cattle roam freely. Not only do they have no fear of humans, I’m pretty sure they didn’t like me being on their turf. At one point, I was lucky that one of the longhorns was behind a fence, or he would have charged me. If having them walk up to your car isn’t enough, for a closer look at some of these cattle and other animals, you can stop at the show barn.
The main attractions of the LBJ Ranch come at the end of the drive when you arrive at the airplane hangar and the Texas White House. Out front is one of the planes that the President used to travel from Washington, D.C., to Texas during his terms. He flew back and forth over 70 times in those five years, so the small plane known as “Air Force One-Half” got quite a bit of use.
The former airplane hangar now houses several displays and the ticket counter for the Texas White House tours. After I bought my $3 tour ticket, I spent some time browsing through the information while I waited for my appointed tour time. There is also a 15-minute video that gives a good overview of the President’s life and illustrates how important Central Texas was to helping him maintain a feeling of normalcy throughout his political career.
The tour of the Texas White House begins in Johnson’s office, which was set up as the control center when he was in town–a whopping 490 days of his presidency. As soon as I stepped through the door, I immediately knew I was in the 1960s thanks to the decor, which has all been restored with original furniture from the time LBJ lived in the house (almost all of it actually belonged to the Johnsons). It includes everything from wood paneling and light blue leather to floral print upholstery.
For the most part, the house looks nothing like I had expected from the home of a President. This makes sense when you realize it was just a ranch house that had been in the Johnson family for 50 years before LBJ ever took office.
There were no grand staircases or items covered in gold. The house is not particularly large, and there is little grandeur, aside from some towels with the Presidential seal and several items marked as being gifts from other heads of state. The most unusual aspect is that the President had phones everywhere (including the bathroom), so that he could be available and working at almost all times.
Outside, there are a few touches that let you know the importance of the place and that someone special lived here, namely the camouflaged Secret Service building that still isn’t open to the public. Several of the President’s cars are on display, including a Corvette and his Amphicar, a land-to-water vehicle that he liked to drive into the nearby lake. There are also the friendship stones which include signatures from the Johnsons’ friends and visitors, some of whom have very recognizable names.
Note: As of January 2020, the Texas White House remains temporarily closed for repairs. The other sites on the ranch are open for visits.
In addition to the buildings directly related to LBJ, the 718-acre state park also offers lots of ways to enjoy the natural setting of the Hill Country. There are sites for fishing and swimming, and you can see bison, wild turkeys, and other animals in the property’s wildlife enclosures. In the spring, the wildflowers here are glorious.
Experiencing Sauer Beckmann Farm
Before leaving LBJ State Park, I stopped by the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm on the front edge of the property. To be honest, I left this to the end of my visit to the ranch because I didn’t have high hopes. I grew up in Texas and have seen my share of actors dressed up in costumes pretending to go about the day’s chores in a semi-hokey way. That was not what I found at the Sauer-Beckmann farm.
Life goes on at this Texas-German farm just as it would have in 1918 when LBJ was growing up. The interpreters do everything from canning to shearing sheep to butchering the animals they raise. There are plenty of daily cleaning activities, and they even make butter and cheese with the milk from the cows. The realism and attention to detail on the farm is striking.
Like my other favorite, Old Salem in North Carolina, Sauer-Beckmann farm is one of the most authentic living history attractions I’ve visited. The interpreters are actually living the history and teaching visitors along the way. It’s definitely worth a stop.
Visiting Johnson City
If time allows, head 14 miles east on Route 290 to the LBJ sites in Johnson City, a small town founded by LBJ’s relatives. There, you’ll find LBJ’s boyhood home where he lived along with his parents and four siblings from age 5 until the time he left for college. He announced his intention to run for Congress from the front porch of the home in 1937.
Year-round, park rangers give regular tours of the boyhood home with interesting information about the President’s life and stories about life in rural Texas in the early 1900s.
A visitor’s center also showcases exhibits about LBJ’s life and accomplishments. From the visitor’s center, a tour of Johnson Settlement, the area settled by Johnson’s grandfather and great uncle, is an easy self-guided walk. There are four original buildings from Johnson’s family and a barn added by a German settler in 1884. Together, they serve as a testament to the hard work of those who tried to make this sometimes difficult land their home.
How to Get to the LBJ Sites
All the LBJ-related historical sites are located in the Texas Hill Country between Austin and Fredericksburg. The boyhood home and other sites in Johnson City are approximately one hour west of Austin on Highway 290. The LBJ Ranch and Sauer-Beckmann Farm are 15 minutes further west on Highway 290 in Stonewall, Texas.
This area of Texas is known for its beautiful landscape, wildflowers, and wineries, so connecting the LBJ sites with a few other stops can make for a great trip. See some suggestions for other places to visit on a Hill Country road trip.