I had a full day in the Johnson City area yesterday. The plan: wake up, write a post or two, and then head half a block north to the Hill Country Cupboard for an early lunch (or late breakfast) of chicken-fried steak, the specialty of the house. Then on the the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, 15 miles west to see the Western White House and the LBJ Ranch.
For those of you unacquainted with this Southern (mostly Texan) treat, it’s a thin beef cutlet breaded and fried like chicken. It’s invariably served with cream gravy and a side of mashed potatoes. And they’re famous for being large, which is good because I’m eating only one meal a day. (Note: I’m not even pretending to eat healthy on this trip, so don’t food-shame me. I’ll have a juice cleanse when I return to wash the beef, fat, and other toxins out of my body.)
It’s pretty much of a dive inside, with fiberboard walls and not much in the way of either light or ambience. But who cares if it proffers you an excellent chicken-fried steak?
What the menu says: not only is it the “world’s best” chicken-fried steak, but they’ve sold nearly 3 dozen!
Below is my lunch: chicken fried steak (regular size) with gravy, a big glop of homemade mashed potatoes (with lumps), and fried okra. The fried okra, tender, not slimy, and toothsome, was perhaps the best rendition of this vegetable I’ve ever had. As for the chicken-fried steak, it was very good, but not the best I’ve had (that would be at Hoover’s in Austin); and they should have used less gravy or put it on the side.
I washed this all down with sweet tea. It was a substantial lunch.
I then drove the 15 miles to the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. Here’s where it is, about 50 miles west of Austin in Texas’s “Hill Country”, one of the state’s most appealing parts.
The park has two parts bisected by the Pedernales River. One one side is the Visitors Center, a “model farm” from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, and a one-room schoolhouse where future President Lyndon Johnson went to school at four years old.
In the visitor’s center, which must be your first stop (you need a free pass to drive around the LBJ Ranch) are several items of interest. Here’s one, with the label.
Can you see his initials in the desk? It took me a while to find them.
Here they are!
Also on display, LBJ’s white Stetson Hat and cowboy boots. The boots are by Dan Post, and although they may be custom boots, specially made to fit LBJ, Dan Post isn’t known for making great boots. A President deserved better!
Near the visitor’s center is the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm, in which Park employees still work the original property as the residents did 150 to about 110 years ago. There are cows to milk and sheep to shear, and you can see displays of knitting, cooking, and gardening.
The rangers, dressed in period clothes, were very chatty and helpful. Given that there were surprisingly few visitors when I went yesterday, I got to talk a lot to the Park employees. Here’s the farm.
I think this is a Charolais cow, but I’m not sure. I am sure that a reader will know. It is a cute cow.
And a sheep, of what breed I know not:
Here’s a device inside the house that dates from about 1918. Can you guess what function this served on the farm? The ranger quizzed me, and I came close but didn’t quite get it. Answer at the bottom of the post.
This is LBJ’s first school, the Junction School, a one-room schoolhouse opened in 1910 and closed in 1947. Johnson went here as a four-year-old for only a few months before the school closed because of a whooping cough epidemic.
Johnson graduated from high school in Johnson City in 1924, when he was 16. He went on to graduate from Southwest Texas State Teachers’ College in San Marcos, and, as you’ll know if you read Caro’s biography (the best bio ever!), LBJ went on to teach in three places, including one where his pupils were all Mexican-Americans.
Below is LBJ’s birthplace, or rather a replica of it. He had it reconstructed as a sort of memento. As the National Park Service notes:
Lyndon Johnson took great pride in his heritage and his roots here in the Hill Country of Texas. In order to share that heritage with interested visitors, President Johnson hired architect J. Roy White of Austin, Texas in 1964 to reconstruct the birthplace home. President Johnson and Roy White relied on old photographs of the original birthplace house as well as family members’ memories to guide the project. The house represents how Lyndon Johnson wanted us to see his birthplace. Lyndon Johnson’s birthplace has the distinction of being the only presidential birthplace reconstructed, refurbished, and interpreted by an incumbent President.
The family burial plot sits on the north side of the Pedernales River. You can’t go into the plot, but you can go right up to the wall and see the graves of the Johnson family sitting peacefully under the large oaks. The two larger stones in the middle are the graves of LBJ and Lady Bird.
They rest side by side. Although LBJ had affairs, the impression one gets is that they were deeply devoted to each other. It saddens me that Lady Bird lived for 34 years after LBJ died in 1973, just four years after leaving the Presidency.
Lady Bird died at 95. Her tombstone is engraved with a flower, the symbol of her “Beautify America” campaign.
LBJ’s grave with the Presidential seal. Beset by heart problems, he died of a massive heart attack at only 64.
Below: cattle on the Johnson ranch, the descendants of ones bought by LBJ. He was quite proud of his herd, and had only Hereford cattle, which are tough, adaptable, and gain weight easily. I was told that all the cows and horses are tended by Park employees, and the farm is not a money-making venture. They do occasionally sell a calf.
LBJ tending his farm in 1954, when he was a U.S. Senator (a Democrat, of course):
A sign at the “Show Barn”, where animals were displayed but also taken care of: branded, hooves tended, and the like. How could I resist a visit with a cow?
Here are the two cows on display, a mother and calf. The mom is called “LBJ Intense Lady 373”, and the calf, named only #543, was born exactly a month before the picture was taken. (It weighed 84 pounds at birth!) As you see below, it already looks like a miniature cow.
Mom and calf.
Look at those lovely eyelashes on the calf!
When LBJ became President after JFK’s assassination in 1963, his ranch became the “Western White House,” where he spent about 20% of his time. It is a surprisingly modest place for a Presidential retreat, but does have certain accoutrements of power. One of them is a runway for his downsized version of Air Force One, called “Air Force One Half.” It’s a Lockheed JetStar VC-140. They had to build a 6000-foot concrete runway on the Ranch to enable it to land.
Johnson would usually fly on the big Air Force One to Austin or San Antonio, and then take this smaller jet or a Marine helicopter to the Ranch, a very short flight.
The plane now has a permanent place close to the Johnsons’ house: the Western White House.
The hanger for the plane doubled as a place where the Johnsons would show movies to visitors and listen to music. Here’s the official Juke Box (Juke Box One?) emblazoned with the Presidential seal.
And of course I was curious about what music the Prez liked. I was told by a ranger that these are the original records and songs. You can see that it’s pretty anodyne pop music from the era. I didn’t see any Beatles songs.
The family cars. LBJ favored Lincoln Continentals. The brown one belonged to Lady Bird, and the white to Lyndon. Note the license plates: both Lyndon and Lady Bird had the same initials. (So did their two daughters: Lynda Bird Johnson and Luci Baines Johnson.)
Here’s LBJ’s Continental with its “suicide doors” (read the text below):
And here’s the Western White House. As I said, it’s not the kind of impressive house you’d expect from a President, but Johnson liked to be folksy with his visitors, putting on barbecues and wearing casual clothes.
The house will be closed for a few more years while it’s being renovated, but you can take a virtual tour of the first floor at the National Park Site.
He even had an “aqua car” that could travel in land or on water, and he’d frighten visitors by driving them straight into the Pedernales river, pretending that he’d made a wrong turn.
The pool on the south side of the house. It was built to give LBJ exercise for his heart, but Lady Bird used it far more often.
The west side of the house.
Johnson installed “friendship stones” outside the house: distinguished visitors would be offered the chance to sign their names in a wet cement flagstone. Here are a couple of notables: the famous Air Force general Curtis LeMay and country singer Eddy Arnold.
Some of the original seven astronauts: Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Leroy (Gordon) Cooper, Deke Slayton, and John Glenn.
Right across the street from the big house is a small house where the Secret Service agents assigned to LBJ and Lady Bird lived and worked:
And the small Pedernales river runs just across the street from the Western White House:
If you want to learn more about LBJ, I can’t recommend highly enough the wonderful four-volume biography by Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. A fifth and last volume is in the works, and we all hope Caro, now 85, finishes his masterpiece before he “moves on.” It is the best biography of any sort that I know of, and, already over 3,000 pages long, is still a page-turner. Read it!
Answer to question above: The device at the Sauer-Beckmann farm is a cream separator, using centrifugal force to separate the milk from the cream, with the latter used to make butter.