Lady Bird Turns 100
Destination: Johnson City
Travel time from:
Austin – 1 hour
Brownsville – 5.75 hours
Dallas – 4 hours
Houston – 3.75 hours
San Antonio – 1.25 hours
Lubbock – 6 hours
El Paso – 8 hours
Natural beauty and cultural history reside alongside presidential heritage in LBJ Country.
By Rob McCorkle
Every American should — and every Texan must — visit LBJ Country. Loosely defined as the rolling, cedar- and oak-studded environs of Blanco and Gillespie counties that shaped the last U.S. president to “come from the land,” its 1,772 square miles encompass the heart and soul of the Texas Hill Country.
Stonewall serves as ground zero for this picturesque, history-rich part of Texas. The tiny, rural birthplace of Lyndon B. Johnson hosted the nation’s 36th president and his entourage for more than 500 days at what was dubbed the Western White House during LBJ’s presidency (1963–68), a tumultuous period defined by the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.
Our first stop is 718 acres of Pedernales River-front property, opened in 1970 as Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site. The picturesque park, known for spring meadows filled with technicolor displays of bluebonnets, Indian blankets and other wildflowers, serves as the embarkation point for self-guided tours of the National Park Service-operated LBJ Ranch just across the river. Visitors should allow several hours to do justice to this treasure trove of Texas’ cultural and natural history.
“LBJ is not only a presidential site, but also features the best of nature. It takes visitors back in time to experience what life was like in the Texas Hill Country and how the area has evolved over the past 100 years,” says Iris Neffendorf, park superintendent. “Our relationship with the national park gives us a whole other dimension.”
The Exhibit Hall at LBJ State Park offers a look at the Hill Country’s German heritage and its favorite son, Lyndon B. Johnson, whose trademark hat and boots are on display.
A visit to the park takes on added significance during this year’s centennial salute to Lady Bird Johnson. A banner bearing a portrait of the late first lady dressed in a canary-yellow dress greets my wife, Judy, and me just inside the visitor center. Nearby, a wildflower photo display pays homage to Lady Bird’s lifelong campaign to beautify the nation through the use of native plants and flowers. Neffendorf notes that this year’s Dec. 16 Christmas tree lighting ceremony, begun 43 years ago by the Johnsons, is dedicated to the beloved Karnack native.
A short film in the theater, narrated by Lady Bird’s longtime friend, PBS journalist Bill Moyers, provides compelling insight into the child of nature who spent much of her childhood playing outdoors and exploring the Caddo Lake area. We learn that Claudia Alta Taylor got her nickname from a nursemaid who said she was “as purty as a lady bird.”
A quick tour of the Exhibit Hall helps give us a feel for the German heritage and the land, a culture that helped shaped a president. A self-guided driving tour with stops at ranch landmarks ends up at the 8,000-square-foot Texas White House. Not long after Lady Bird’s death in 2007, the NPS began offering guided tours of the home’s downstairs.
Seeing LBJ’s office is like stepping into a ’60s time capsule: boxy television sets, clunky desk phones, typewriters and other artifacts.
Park ranger Barbara Ford explains how the Johnsons lived during the presidency and later during their retirement years, when seven Johnson grandchildren dubbed the rambling ranch home “Mimi’s house.” Dozens of photographs of visiting dignitaries, framed correspondence from celebrities, wildlife paintings from Texas artists, daughter Luci’s parlor piano and other family memorabilia greet us as we move through living room, dining room, kitchen and bedroom, where LBJ suffered a fatal heart attack in 1973. For $2 per adult, the tour is a must-do for those with 45 minutes to spare.
Cognizant that most Hill Country trekkers don’t come just for an immersion in history, I point my vehicle west for a short drive down Ranch Road 1 to U.S. 290 — which is one of LBJ Country’s two main highways, along with U.S. 281 — to the tiny burg of Hye to check out one of the newer wineries along “Wine Road 290.”
William Chris Vineyards beckons travelers to step inside a century-old farmhouse to sample hand-crafted wines made strictly with Texas grapes. Until their newly planted vineyards mature, native Texans Bill Blackmon and Chris Brundrett are using fruit from 40 acres of Hill Country and High Plains vineyards to make their small-batch, mostly varietal red wines
Open for less than two years, the winery already boasts more than 1,000 members of Hye Society, the William Chris wine club that offers a number of perks, including free tastings of the latest varietals.
Our accommodations for the night lie about 10 miles east of Fredericksburg just off Ranch Road 1376 at Full Moon Inn, a classic Hill Country bed-and-breakfast. For more than 20 years, owner Capt. Matt Carinhas has welcomed travelers to his funky cluster of log cabins and cottages on a historic 1860 property along South Grape Creek within a ringing guitar lick of legendary Luckenbach.
A pair of well-fed, friendly black dogs, Audie and Butterball, lead us into the main ranch house to check in with Carinhas and his wife, Ginny, who’s preparing dinner and looking after 4-month-old Scarlett, the sister of twin brother Rhett. You get the picture. This isn’t your typical stuffed-shirt, dress-up-for-breakfast kind of place, but a laid-back, bucolic retreat shaded by old-growth mesquites populated by cooing doves.
Matt Carinhas, who knows the Hill Country inside and out and is never short of stories, runs a rural retreat designed to leave guests — bikers, car club enthusiasts and wedding parties alike — well-rested and well-fed. We unpack in the Grape Suite, the spacious downstairs floor of a two-story, white-framed house, sporting a full kitchen and breakfast room, bath and king bedroom. It’s already 6:30, and hunger pangs have commenced.
We stop at Luckenbach to listen to the regular afternoon guitar pickers beneath the live oaks, serenaded by a boisterous rooster, and then take the back roads to Alamo Springs Café. The country eatery sits just a short walk from Old Tunnel State Park and its renowned bat flights. I opt for the highly touted green chile burger on a jalapeño-cheese bun; Judy has a shrimp po-boy. Even the smallest order of onion rings proves more than a match for our appetites.
Breakfast at Full Moon Inn means much more than the chintzy continental breakfasts offered by a growing number of B&Bs. Carinhas calls on his New Orleans culinary skills to whip up a gut-busting breakfast of strawberry-orange juice, fried eggs, locally made German pepperwurst sausage and sweet potato pancakes.
LBJ’s boyhood hometown of Johnson City is calling, so we hit U.S. 290 heading east. Just a couple of miles from our ultimate destination, a glinting, chrome bull sculpture marks the highway turnoff to a different kind of exotics ranch — the Benini Studio and Sculpture Ranch. The Italian artist and his wife, Lorraine, have turned 140 acres of a former hunting ranch once owned by LBJ into a surreal setting where fiberglass, metal and granite sculptures seem to sprout from the limestone hills.
Massive fiberglass, metal and granite sculptures seem to sprout from the hills at the Benini Studio and Sculpture Ranch.
We wind our way to ranch HQ, a converted quonset hut art studio. The expansive space showcases the works of various regional, national and international artists, as well as dozens of Benini’s eye-popping, abstract and geometric, color-drenched acrylics.
There’s just enough time for a quick bite in Johnson City at the 290 Diner and some window-shopping at the Old Lumber Yard retail stores before checking into the Chantilly Lace Country Inn. Former restaurateurs Porter and Sylvia Dunnaway own this two-story replica of a traditional Texas limestone home. Judy opts to take a class from Sylvia, who makes and sells fragrant goat-milk soaps, while I drive into town to see a special Lady Bird exhibit at the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park’s visitor center.
The exhibits share stories and photos that reinforce Lady Bird’s legacy as the woman with the honeysuckle-sweet Southern drawl who spurred LBJ’s implementation of such groundbreaking environmental legislation as the Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Park visitors can listen to a recording of the first lady as she stumps for LBJ in the Old South during a whistle-stop train tour aboard the “LBJ Special.” Several panels, with poster-sized photos and text, highlight Lady Bird’s visits to and promotion of the national park system, including Big Bend National Park and the Fort Davis National Historical Site.
I have one more afternoon stop in mind, so I decide against a guided tour of LBJ’s reconstructed boyhood home that’s been restored to a 1920s appearance and forgo a short walk to the Johnson Settlement that interprets the family’s ranching and trail-driving roots.
The Whittington family started making and selling jerky from their Johnson City meat locker plant around the time that LBJ assumed the presidency. Today, descendants operate Whittington’s Jerky, making smoked, chewy strips of beef, turkey, pork, bison and venison jerky and selling them worldwide. I pop into Whittington’s Jerky General Store, where visitors can sample the many varieties of regular and spicy jerky. The store offers an impressive selection of Texas salsas, barbecue sauces and other gourmet items.
Banners with Lady Bird Johnson’s portrait line the streets of Johnson City.
Dinner on our last night in LBJ Country waits on the town square at one of the state’s newest brewpubs, Pecan Street Brewing. Opened in 2011, the combination bar and full-service restaurant is a family affair for the Elliotts, Houston transplants who moved to the area in 2003. Son Sean’s locally brewed craft beers flow from bar taps fed by a two-story brewing operation. I can’t resist the brick oven pizza. Judy’s shrimp with grits in a creamy Cajun sauce proves superior. The entrees are a perfect complement to the restaurant’s scrumptious specialty appetizer — portabella fries, dipped in piquant chipotle sauce. The Elliotts have definitely put their mark on LBJ’s hometown.
A restful night in an upstairs, king Jacuzzi suite prepares us for one of Sylvia Dunnaway’s highly anticipated breakfasts. It does not disappoint. We gorge ourselves on a gourmet spread of peach praline, cranberry scones, eggs Florentine and country ham, while mesmerized by the aerobatics in the butterfly garden just beyond the dining room’s plate-glass windows.
On the drive home, we do what most visitors to this part of the Hill Country do — pick up some of the area’s famous peaches to eat later. We stop at a Stonewall mainstay, Burg’s Corner. The Dueckers sell more than a dozen varieties of the juicy fruit grown in their family orchard from mid-May through early September.
Yep, LBJ Country certainly is a lip-smacking slice of heaven. That brings to mind a poster I had seen at the national park’s exhibit hall.
Asked if she believed in heaven, Lady Bird replied: “Oh, yes, I do. I do know there’s something hereafter, as all of this has been too significant, too magnificent for there not to be something.”
Happy 100th birthday, Lady Bird.
• Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site,
(830) 644-2252, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/lyndonbjohnson
• Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, (830) 644-2478, www.nps.gov/lyjo
• William Chris Vineyards, (830) 998-7654, williamchriswines.com
• Full Moon Inn, (830) 997-2205, fullmooninn.com
• Benini Studio and Sculpture Ranch, (830) 868-5244,
• Whittington’s Jerky General Store, (877) 868-5501,
• Chantilly Lace Country Inn, (830) 660-2621,
• Pecan Street Brewing, (830) 868-2500,
• Burg’s Corner, (800) 694-2772, www.burgscorner.com
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