Sonja Sommerfeld | TPWD
Lighting up the Hill Country
Thanks to LBJ, Johnson City dazzles at Christmas.
"Did you go potty? Where are your shoes?”
Just leaving the house with a 5-year-old in tow consumes no small part of a day off, so instead of driving far away, my family decides to find some adventure closer to home. Well, as soon as we can get out the door.
From Austin, we have zipped through too many towns with only a quick glance out the car window. Today, we’ll stop and get out in Johnson City. It’s time to have a real look around this Hill Country hamlet.
December’s a great month to visit, especially if you have kids or love Christmas lights. The Johnson City Lights Spectacular features a whopping 2 million lights around the historic square, Memorial Park and the Pedernales Electric Cooperative headquarters — so big, it’s visible from the International Space Station. Once you’ve taken those holiday photos in the magical glow of the lights, check out the many other events offered throughout December to get you in the holiday spirit.
Any day of the year you visit “Johnson” City, you’ll notice the influence of our 36th president and his family, including the “Home Town of Lyndon B. Johnson” entry sign with a plywood Stetson. In the late 1800s, settler James Polk Johnson, a cousin to the future president, influenced a county seat move from Blanco to this location near the Pedernales River in the central part of the county, as we discover on a panel on the courthouse lawn. Today the county seat rivalry has been mostly forgotten, playing out only on the high school football field.
The courthouse lawn is a fine place to enjoy takeout pizza from Pecan Street Brewing across the street. They also offer burgers and sandwiches and are happy to walk our order over to our picnic table. The brewery occupies what was once a hardware and supply store — a community gathering place then as now.
We head south from the courthouse along Nugent Avenue to explore the antique stores and art galleries in buildings that once served as the supply hub for surrounding farms and ranches. Echo, a gallery and antique store, occupies the old Henry Ford showroom. Inside we meet Janet L. Haynes, one of the resident artists, who immediately befriends our daughter and occupies her with a visual scavenger hunt. With our kiddo quietly scanning for clues, Janet tells us about the art scene in Johnson City.
“It’s a really great community,” she says. “There’s a lot of talent in these hills, and it’s not just people painting wildflowers. But COVID has been a real challenge.”
The dip in business during the pandemic has driven some artists out and forced many galleries to show by appointment only, so serious buyers should call before they come.
Meanwhile, the scavenger hunt continues. “Look on a bottom shelf,” Janet says, offering a hint for the final and most elusive item, a green clock shaped like an owl. We work together to find it, and with her plastic ring prize secured, our kindergartener has enjoyed her visit as much as we have. We’re disappointed to learn that Echo will make way for an antique motorcycle museum.
Down the block, the building re-mix continues. The old lumberyard houses a bar and restaurant, an old filling station offers rustic décor and, at the theater where LBJ himself may have taken in a picture show, you can peek through the windows at more art.
The most impressive historic structure re-use is impossible to miss — the Science Mill. The town’s 1880s feed mill has been repurposed into a science museum and discovery center, with exhibits for all ages and interests. It’s surprisingly cutting-edge in a town of fewer than 2,000 people.
Founders Bonnie Baskin and Bob Elde — a virologist and a neurologist — were enchanted by the area’s hilltop vistas while visiting and relocated from Minnesota. When they learned the old mill was for sale, the idea of a hands-on science museum was hatched.
“It’s the craziest thing we’ve done, but also the most rewarding,” says Bob, who calls Bonnie the founder and himself her wingman.
Since opening in 2015, the Science Mill has welcomed more than 300,000 visitors, plus thousands more through offsite summer camps and outreach programs. The goal is to expose rural kids to the possibilities of STEM careers and stimulate their curiosity and creativity. Judging from our often-distractable daughter’s engagement, what they’ve done here really works.
We steer wheeled boats with wind currents, move a ball with our brain waves and harness wind to make electrical power. There are fish tanks to ogle, and a brightly colored chameleon. Indoors, we’re enthralled by a suspended sculpture illuminated in every color of the rainbow. Outdoors we’re equally transfixed by the Incredible Ball Machine, a Rube Goldberg roller coaster of chain reactions. We whisper to each other across a distance using acoustic reflectors, watch huge pendulums swing and blow giant bubbles until closing time.
Just beyond the Science Mill, we find two notable presidential sites in town — LBJ’s boyhood home and the historic Johnson Settlement, where the president’s grandfather, Sam Ealy Johnson, settled in 1867. From this home base, Sam and his brother drove thousands of cattle to market up the Chisholm Trail. We listen to a recording at his restored dogtrot cabin that recounts how LBJ’s grandmother once crawled under the home to hide from raiding Comanches.
Walking around the hand-hewn timber-and-stone structures and learning the stories behind them makes the struggles of frontier life more palpable. It’s not hard to imagine how that heritage might shape a future president.
I can’t help but wonder what President Johnson would think about those millions of Christmas lights. When he grew up in the Hill Country, his family and neighbors had no electricity. But in 1938, as a young Congressman, he helped organize the Pedernales Electric Cooperative and successfully lobbied the Roosevelt administration to bring electricity to the isolated Hill Country. While it may not be electricity’s most essential use, the festive lighting illuminates how Johnson and his power shaped the future of his hometown.
We fuel up with some coffee and head toward Stonewall for more LBJ history. Johnson City is situated between three state parks; each offers very different experiences just 15 to 20 minutes away. Blanco State Park is to the south, and Pedernales Falls is to the east, but we’re driving west to LBJ State Park and LBJ National Historic Park.
These adjacent state and national parks have always seemed a little mysterious.
“Where does one end and the other begin?” The river.
“What does it cost?” Nothing.
“Why haven’t we come here before?” Good question!
The friendly staffer at park headquarters answers all our questions and suggests some 5-year-old-friendly activities.
Our first stop is the Sauer-Beckmann Living History farm, settled by the Sauer family 150 years ago. Staff and volunteers wear period clothes and live life as it was in simpler times — growing vegetables, raising livestock and turning both into meals in the historic kitchen. But today, both the farmhouse and kitchen were closed for renovation. Fortunately, the farm animals are still on site, so we can see the pigs and a calf in the pens and watch the chickens and sheep quietly pecking and grazing the day away.
We’ll return another time to get the full story of this place, though we do learn one interesting fact: One of the Sauer’s 10 children ushered a baby LBJ into the world, serving as midwife at his birth. Yes, you’re never far from a connection to LBJ around here.
We watch deer and longhorn and some bison grazing at the state park, marvel at a couple of preserved cabins and talk about how life once was in the Pedernales valley. We cross the river into the national historic park to see, among other things, Johnson’s birthplace, the Texas White House and the presidential jet known as “Air Force One-Half” on the LBJ Ranch.
As we head back home, we feel the same satisfaction we get from longer trips. We’ve met new people, explored a new place and learned about life there, past and present. Best of all, we’re only an hour from home. We have time to take the scenic route back to Austin, past Pedernales Falls State Park.
We know we will be coming back to Johnson City. Taking our time along the winding road, over the rolling hills and scenic creek crossings, will ease us gently back into city life. As another week looms, it is comforting to know that our next escape does not need to be all that far away.
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