Texas, Day 6: Johnson City; chicken-fried steak and the LBJ Ranch

April 4, 2021 • 10:00 am

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.)

The venue for my meal:

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!

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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.

31 thoughts on “Texas, Day 6: Johnson City; chicken-fried steak and the LBJ Ranch

    1. It’s pretty much merely a béchamel, one of the French mother sauces, which is a roux + milk / cream. There are of course many variations. One of the more common ones is to brown some breakfast sausage, use the drippings to make the roux for the gravy and crumble the sausage and add it too.

  1. Jersey cow, a dairy breed, as readers above have noted.

    The sheep is a Ramboullet, a wool breed.

    Cream separators have come a long way since then, but still work on the same principle of centrifugal force. The electric ones are kind of expensive, but a lot easier to work with.

    L

    1. Indeed, I spent many hours as a kid cranking the handle of the cream separator! And then had to take it apart and carefully wash the whole thing. Especially ensuring the main/important part – the cone-shaped separator with its several separator plates – was spotlessly clean otherwise it would sour the milk when the used the next day, leading to all manner of trouble for the operator 🙂

      Yes, those were the days…

  2. Can you imagine the equivalent to these LBJ sites but for Trump? “Here’s where Donald J. Trump had his first sexual conquest.” “Here’s the office where Dr. Larry Braunstein practiced podiatry in Jamaica, Queens and gave President Trump his fake bone spurs diagnosis that allowed him to avoid the draft.” Ok, perhaps I have TDS. It’s been hard to shake.

  3. What a nice place. Sorry I never got to see it when I was in Texas. Now if any one wants to know about the tractor in the photo and I’m sure you do. That would be a tractor for that time, around 1954. An Allis Chalmers W-D. I cannot tell if it might be a W-D45 but it might. You can see this modern tractor for the time had a 3-point hook up in back for your implements. Also had hydraulics and a hand clutch. It is hard to tell what the tractor is pulling but might be a chisel plow. I have more than a few miles on a tractor just like that.

  4. Yes, pretty anodyne pop on the juke box, but I might mention one singer. Brook Benton. He wasn’t much known this side of the Pond and perhaps he was less well known in America than his obvious talent would suggest. Perhaps there was just too many great singers, the likes of Clyde McPhatter, Ben E King, Sam Cooke, to name a few. He had a lovely honeyed voice. He made a great album with Dinah Washington which apparently was none too easy a production on account of Washington’s loathing for him.

    1. Concur with your sentiments re: Brook Benton. (Was Washington’s loathing reasonably justified? No doubt she herself was pure as the driven snow.) There’s not all that much anodyne in Streisand’s (e.g., “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home”) and Bennett’s early albums, both not infrequently being “belters” (Bennett described himself as “a saloon singer”) when they were so inclined.

      Anodyne or not, Bennett has endured, years ago resolving to stick to his “Standards” performance standard. Some years ago the younger set took a shine to him. He was words-to-the-effect welcomed back, considered “cool.” He replied, “I never left.” (Alas, going on 95, he’s dealing with Alzheimer’s, but with assistance still striving to perform, at least as of a half-year or so ago.)

      There’s no lack of “dyne” and “edgy” music nowadays. No doubt it’s LBJ’s misfortune that he never got to hear “Wap.” It would be just the thing for him to relax to at the end of the day in the recliner, tie loosened and bourbon on the rocks in hand, after dealing with the latest embarrassing diplomatic kerfuffle or congressional insurrection. He once described being president as “like being a mule out in a hailstorm – you just have to stand there and take it.”

      1. Agreed, she was no Saint. She was a hellraiser and pretty handy with her fists. She followed Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie in these unladylike pursuits. I think it was mostly tongue lashings Benton got however for messing up duets.

  5. Definitely a place for me to visit; I didn’t realize that a working historical farm was part of the complex, and the one room rural school. All of this brought up memories of me growing up in the 50’s on a ranch in the Sandhills of Nebraska. The large herd of beef cattle are indeed Herefords (we raised them as well) but the Jersey Cow and calf represent a small dairy herd for milk, butter and cheese. My Dad preferred Holstein but I have always liked the Jerseys. I have two Jersey oxen right now one who I can lead about but the other skittish so my plan to make a team failed.

  6. You’ll hear no food-shaming from me, Jerry. In fact, I’m impressed by your restraint, as I’d be over-ordering the world’s best brisket you had yesterday. I agree with you about the gravy – should be on the side, not defacing a perfectly crispy fried steak!

    1. In Texas, CFS comes smothered in cream gravy. Never on the side unless you ask, and never brown gravy.

  7. I have eaten at the Hill Country Cupboard multiple times over the last 20+ years usually coming east on Hwy 290 where it dead ends into Hwy 281 going northsouth = restaurant location. My favorite meal is “The Triple Play” breakfast consisting of 2 eggs(I get a 3rd one) over easy, hash browns and 3 meats–bacon, ham, and a patty sausage. It also comes with toast/biscuit. Good quality, reasonably priced–recommended.

  8. Thanks for the virtual LBJ ranch tour, looks like an interesting place. I need to get that biography as you often recommend it, as do other readers. What happened to Texas politics? Do contemporary Texans appreciate LBJ’s legacy? I doubt it. Now they elect and re-elect complete loons like Cruz, Gohmert, Perry, Abbott, etc. Maybe O’Rourke can eventually make an in-road.

  9. LBJ’s presidency is the most tragic of the 20th century; he might have achieved greatness if his decisions in Vietnam hadn’t wrecked everything. When he became President he was widely derided as a cornpone Southerner, but his administration was the most transformative since FDR’s and poised to complete the legacy of the New Deal. Then Vietnam escalated and LBJ was denounced as a bloodthirsty monster. I wonder what would have happened if he decided to seek re-election. Would the convention still be a horror show? If he secured the party’s approval, would he have beaten Nixon?

    Fun fact…after going back to Texas LBJ began sporting long hair—as long as that of the people who protested against him. There’s an interesting story behind it:
    https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/08/lbj-long-hair-photo/568447/

  10. Does ‘visit with a cow’ mean that one has to take one’s own cow?
    (a rhetorical and lightly sarcastic question from a Brit who simply visits rather than visits ‘with’)

    1. Being that it’s Texas I am certain that they will loan you a cow and include the cost in the price of admission

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