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Hill Country Treasures

Destination - Fredericksburg

By Mary-Love Bigony

Travel time from:

  • Amarillo - 7 hours /
  • Austin - 1.5 hours /
  • Brownsville - 6.5 hours /
  • Dallas - 5 hours /
  • El Paso - 7.5 hours /
  • Houston - 5 hours /
  • San Antonio - 1.5 hours

Waves lap against the ship's hull and Hawaiian music plays softly in the background. In the distance, the lights of Pearl Harbor and Honolulu flicker against the silhouette of Diamondhead.

It's early morning, December 7, 1941, and the last peaceful moments for this idyllic scene.

I'm in one of several walk-through dioramas at the George Bush Gallery of the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, part of the Admiral Nimitz State Historic Site. This lifelike scene gives visitors the experience of standing on the deck of a Japanese mother submarine preparing to launch a midget sub four miles off the coast of Oahu. In another exhibit I walk across the airstrip at Guadalcanal and sense the disquiet soldiers must have felt one night in October 1942. Pilots in a tent talk about the day's raid, and worry about whether mechanics can salvage enough parts to keep their planes in the air the next day.

It's raining on the first day of my visit to this Hill Country town of 9,000 people, many of them descendants of the Germans who settled this area in the mid-19th century. But once inside the Nimitz museum, I realize I'll have no trouble spending the whole day here. The original museum is housed in a steamboat-shaped hotel that was operated by Charles H. Nimitz, grandfather of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, a Fredericksburg native who led Allied forces in the Pacific during World War II. The George Bush Gallery opened in 1999.

Exiting the dioramas, I discover a wealth of exhibits that show many facets of World War II in the Pacific: the rusted and battered hatch of the USS Arizona, sunk at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941; a recording of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Day of Infamy" speech; a map using moving lights to tell the story of the war in the Pacific. Another exhibit tells the story of former President George Bush, for whom the gallery is named. Bush was a Navy pilot, and while on a bombing run in 1944 his plane was hit by antiaircraft fire. He parachuted from the plane, and museum visitors can watch a film of his rescue at sea. As I leave the gallery I walk down a gangplank lined with Welcome Home signs, and get a sense of the excitement returning soldiers must have felt.

A block away from the Bush Gallery is the Pacific Combat Zone, where aircraft, tanks and other large battlefield artifacts are presented in World War II settings. I step onto a recreated hangar deck of an aircraft carrier and see a TBM Avenger bomber being readied for its next mission. Next is a PT boat docked alongside a pier with gasoline drums and ammunition boxes stacked nearby. Other scenes feature an American landing on a Japanese beachhead, a Quonset hut housing a hospital and a burial ground. Leaving the museum, I feel a deep sense of patriotism, as well as profound admiration for the troops that fought in World War II.

The next day I learn more about another Texan who achieved international prominence, Lyndon B. Johnson. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the National Park Service collaborate to tell the story of the 36th president of the United States. Johnson was born in 1908 in a modest frame house near Stonewall, and died in 1973 just a few miles away from that spot, in a ranch house known as the Texas White House during his presidency.

My visit through LBJ country begins at the Johnson City Unit of the national park. A film in the visitor center tells of President Johnson's accomplishments in education, civil rights, the war on poverty and Medicare. Exhibits include a timeline of world events, political cartoons and campaign memorabilia. Down the street from the visitor center is the Victorian home where the future president moved with his family when he was 5 years old. The park ranger points out family photographs and tells how young Lyndon was influenced by his father, a state legislator, and his mother, one of the few college-educated women in the area. Johnson announced his candidacy for the U.S. Congress from the porch of this house in 1937.

From Johnson City I go to Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site near Stonewall. I watch another film, this one a TV program about the ranch that aired during the Johnson Administration. In a memorable scene, President Johnson is driving a reporter around the ranch in what turns out to be an amphibious car. Imagine the reporter's surprise when the president drives straight into the Pedernales River!

One of the state park's most fascinating features is the Sauer-Beckmann Farm, a working farm typical of the early 20th century. Park employees raise livestock and crops, make sausage, can vegetables and cook. But the rain is back, so instead of walking through the wet grass to get to the farm, I climb aboard a bus for a tour of the national park.

The bus takes us across the Pedernales River and past the Junction School, which LBJ started attending at the age of 4, and where he signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act more than 50 years later. Next we come to the president's reconstructed birthplace. Johnson supervised the reconstruction during his presidency, based on old photos and memories of family members; the structure is the only presidential birthplace reconstructed, refurbished and interpreted by an incumbent president. After Johnson left office he personally guided tours at the birthplace, and guided a tour on the day he died, January 22, 1973.

We get out at the family cemetery, shaded by huge pecan trees, where LBJ is buried alongside his ancestors. We drive by the ranch house, but don't get off the bus. This was the Texas White House, where the president entertained heads of state and conducted staff meetings in lawn chairs under the oak trees. The tour ends with a stop at the show barn, where the National Park Service maintains a herd of Hereford cattle descended from LBJ's herd.

Back in Fredericksburg, I visit another ranch. But this is nothing like LBJ's ranch; it's the Fredericksburg Butterfly Ranch & Habitat, right on Main Street. I enter through the gift shop, which is housed in the charming Loeffler-Weber house, built in 1846, the same year Fredericksburg was founded. Deborah Payne, founder and owner, greets me warmly and escorts me to the 1,500-square-foot enclosure she calls the butterfly house. Lantana, turk's cap, snapdragons and various other native plants fill the area and butterflies hover near the plants, above a pond and around various feeders.

Payne explains that each butterfly species lays its eggs only on certain plant species. So a butterfly garden needs plants to feed larvae as well as plants to feed mature butterflies. Payne watches the activity in the garden carefully, and when eggs are laid on the larval plants she collects them and transfers them to the caterpillar house. Inside the caterpillar house, a greenhouse-like structure, she points out dozens of caterpillars in various stages of their life cycles.

Payne spends much of her time helping visitors decide what plants to use in their yards to attract and hold butterflies. She is enthusiastic about butterflies and her goal of increasing the butterfly population by planting butterfly-friendly habitat. The gift shop stocks a variety of butterfly gardening and identification books, feeders, butterfly novelties and even a larval kit for raising butterflies.

On my last day in Fredericksburg, I'm eager to do something outdoors. Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, just 20 miles to the north, is one of the best hiking spots in the state. But the early morning rain probably has made the smooth granite dome too slick for hiking. So I head east on US 290 to Pedernales Falls State Park.

This quintessential Hill Country park is made up of the stair-like limestone hills that give the region its name. The Hill Country is part of the Balcones Fault Zone; Spanish explorers called the area balcones, meaning balconies or stairs, for the appearance of the region from a distance. The Pedernales River runs clear and cold, cutting a course through the hills and juniper breaks. The river is prone to flash flooding, so be alert to weather conditions whenever you're in the park.

I've hiked the park's rugged and scenic trails and cooled off in the river many times, so on this drizzly morning I head for a feature of the park I haven't seen: the covered birdwatching blind. Volunteers built this nature theater, complete with a spacious seating area, from recycled materials. Outside the blind is a habitat complete with feeders, birdbaths and native vegetation. I spend a pleasant morning watching birds come and go and listening to rain tapping on the roof.

On my way back to Fredericksburg, I pull off the highway for a look at something that has caught my eye every time I drive this route: acres and acres of wildflowers in every color imaginable. It's Wildseed Farms, the largest working wildflower farm in the United States. John Thomas, a fourth-generation Texas farmer, owns and operates Wildseed Farms, harvesting the wildflowers for seeds that he sells to customers across the country.

Self-guided walking trails provide access to the 200 acres of wildflowers, which are labeled according to broad types; some attract butterflies, some are shade tolerant and still others are grouped because they need very little water. Thomas and his staff work with visitors and mail-order customers to help them get the right seeds for their part of the country.

I end the day at the gift shop and biergarten, where I enjoy a snack and a view of the wildflower fields with the hills rising in the background. The German baron who settled Fredericksburg was impressed by the area's abundance of water, stone and timber. That same beauty, with a generous dose of history and hospitality, continues to lure folks to this scenic pocket of the Texas Hill Country.

Exploring Fredericksburg

Be sure to visit Fredericksburg's new visitor information center, downtown at 302 E. Austin St. For lodging and other information about Fredericksburg and surrounding attractions call (888) 997-3600, or go to www.fredericksburg-texas.com.

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