Happy National Park Centennial! (And Happy Birthday, Mr. President!)
We decided to take the day off on the Centennial to celebrate and headed out to our local National Park Site - which happens to be the Lyndon Baines Johnson State Park and National Historic Site. This NPS site has two locations: one in Johnson City and the other in Stonewall, Texas.
Why two places for one NPS, you ask?
Well, Lyndon Johnson’s presidency was worthy of two locations due to the unique circumstances of the area: the proximity of the properties of his life from cradle to grave (literally) and to showcase the rare “circle of life” for this important historical figure. I would venture to guess his Texas-sized personality might have something to do with it as well.
The NPS visitor center located in Johnson City, encompasses information regarding his presidency, legislation he championed, and the life that he & Mrs. Johnson led while he was President in Washington, D.C. Here you can watch short films on LBJ’s presidency, as well as take a short walk to his boyhood home.
The site in Stonewall is the Johnson family homestead, going back generations, where President Johnson was born and is buried in the family gravesite. The exhibits here tell the story of the Johnson family and their love of the land. It also includes cameos of people who visited the Texas White House along the way, including very famous people and politicians from all over the world. The Johnson family loved the dubbed “Texas White House” and it’s said that he spent as much as 20% of his time as President here.
On your way into the property in Stonewall, it’s worth stopping into State Park headquarters right at the entrance to pick up a self-guided audio tour CD for your drive through the property. You can listen to the voices of ranch hands, members of the Johnson family, and people close the Johnson family, weave a story about the ranch and how much President & Mrs. Johnson loved this land.
As we pulled into the parking lot at Texas White House visitor center, you can see the Lockheed jet which shuttled the President and the First Lady to the ranch from Austin-Bergstrom airport. He nicknamed the plane “Air Force 1 1/2”. It’s a small plane, and one has to wonder how President Johnson could fit in such a plane, being a man of six-foot-three!
The Texas White House visitor center is a comfortable, modern building with a fabulous exhibit about President and Lady Bird Johnson. Texas White House tours are generally three dollars, but on this special holiday, house tours were free! If you were one of the lucky few, you could have called ahead to get a very limited engagement tour of the home’s second floor, which is usually off-limits to the public due to structural issues. Unfortunately, I called too late to get in on this treat.
As we walked in, we were greeted by some of the friendliest park rangers we’ve met. They are patient, knowledgeable, and willing to answer any questions you have about the Johnson family and the Site. You’ll find some very well done exhibits in this building, which show off President Johnson’s accomplishments throughout his presidency, about his time at the Texas White House, and also includes an exhibit of Lady Bird Johnson’s oft-forgotten but important accomplishments during his time in public life.
We were informed as we signed up for a tour of the Texas White House that we were the one-hundredth visitor to sign up for a tour that day – the NPS Centennial – and we won a pair of NPS Centennial T-shirts. Lucky us!
Texas White House sits on the Pedernales River, and a beautiful expanse of acreage lined with old oak trees. The home has been remodeled to its former glory of the 1960’s when the Johnsons live there. This gorgeous property is full of history (and really great wallpaper, but you can’t take photographs inside the Texas White House.)
While talking with the Park Rangers, a few told me their favorite part of this particular national historical site is how it’s constantly evolving, even though President Johnson’s history come to an end at his passing. There are always new things that they discover or can expand upon, including the recently opened car Museum of all of President Johnson’s favorite cars.
The car museum has an amphibious car made in Germany, his favorite Lincoln Continental convertible, as well as a few others, including a car given to one of his daughters for her 16th birthday. it’s a sight to see!
The Rangers giving the Texas White House tour are full of wonderful information and energy, but the tour goes by quickly – make sure to look around and take in the details!
Many think that a National Historical Site of a former President would be boring, but let me tell you, there’s a lot to see and learn here. If you’re too tired after the hour-and-a-half drive from Austin, just sit right down next to the banks of the river and listen to the rushing water go by to regain your energy.
The wonderful history of Lyndon Johnson in this area is that, not only was this where he lived, but his family’s history is woven into the fabric of this land: His boyhood home is just down the road in Johnson City; his grandparents’ home a stones’ throw away; the Texas White House was originally owned by one of his uncles; and his childhood school is just down the road. The property is full of Johnson family ghosts everywhere, in a very good, small town way.
After spending a good four hours over at the Texas White House, we drove up the road to Johnson City to check in at the visitor center. As we came in they had a cake and celebration as well…
but we arrived in time for the opening a time capsule that was closed 25 years ago at the 75th anniversary of the National Park Service. What a treat for us to watch them open it.
One of the things you walk away with as you depart the Texas White House, is how much President and Lady Bird Johnson loved this land. It was an integral part of who they were and how they saw the world. It’s why President Johnson regularly brought leaders from all over the world to the Texas White House, because it’s such a unique landscape that most people never get to experience.
The Texas Hill country shaped who President Johnson was, down to his very core. It gives contrast to the man who lived there, the boy who grew up in a small town, and the most powerful man in the world as president of United States, with an enormous reputation.
After a full day on the road we headed back to Austin big smiles and a new sense of appreciation not only for National Parks, but also for our country - which has such unique and vibrant land and characters, such as President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Plan your trip:
Free driving permits are given out at the State Park HQ from 9am to 4pm daily and the ranch gates close at 5:30pm.
Not to miss:
Tour the Texas White House – tour fees are $3, and last 30 minutes long.
Take time to walk around the ranch and head over to the Johnson settlement, or check out the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm near the State park building