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In the Footsteps of LBJ

Destination: Johnson City

By Melissa Gaskill

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 1 hour /
  • Brownsville - 6.25 hours /
  • Dallas - 4.25 hours /
  • El Paso - 9 hours /
  • Houston - 3.5 hours /
  • San Antonio - 1.25 hours
  • Lubbock - 6.25 hours

Ranches still dot the region, but some of the cattle have been replaced by zebras, ostriches and well-fed tourists.

Those of you who make a quick fuel or soda stop in Johnson City join a long line of travelers seeking a break, a line that goes back to Spanish silver mine inspectors in the 1500s, in fact. Several hundred years later, it was folks making their way between Austin and Fredericksburg, along the natural route created by the Pedernales River. Some of them settled and established farms and ranches that are still around today, and this town of roughly 1,200 in the heart of the Hill Country continues to entice weary travelers to stop for a spell.

The area’s most famous rancher, of course, is our 36th President, Lyndon B. Johnson, and much of his heritage has been physically preserved here, from birthplace to final resting place. These are jointly managed by the Texas and national park services as the LBJ State Park and Historic Site and the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. The latter has two locations, and the visitor center in town is the best place to start. A shady, mile-long walking route through the adjacent Johnson Settlement tells a roughly chronological story, beginning at the Exhibit Center, which illustrates life on this rugged frontier when the President’s grandfather Samuel Johnson Sr. arrived, in the late 1850s. He built a one-room log cabin, restored here along with an addition made after the Civil War, when Sam and his brother Tom drove Longhorn cattle along the Chisholm Trail to Abilene. Next on the walk is a cut-stone barn constructed in 1884, and one built in 1875 by Sam Johnson’s nephew James Polk Johnson, who is actually the city’s namesake. In 1879, tired of the hard and dangerous 14-mile trip to the nearest post office and general store, area settlers held a barbecue to discuss founding their own town. James Polk offered up 320 acres on the Pedernales, and when the gathering voted to accept the offer and name the town after the donor, Johnson City was born.

After the walking tour, next stop is the boyhood home of LBJ, across the street from the visitor center. Guided tours start on the hour and half-hour from the front porch. This location also has two excellent films — LBJ, the President and Lady Bird — and exhibits that describe the Johnson presidency.

Fourteen miles down Highway 290, the second national park location and state park visitor center have additional exhibits and films, as well as one-and-a-half-hour bus tours of the LBJ Ranch and surroundings. These include Junction School, the first school young Lyndon attended and the site where, as president, he signed legislation supporting education, which he called “the passport from poverty.” Other stops are a reconstruction of the president’s birthplace; the Johnson family cemetery; and the ranch, including the Texas White House complex, still the home of Lady Bird Johnson and of an amphibious car, which the president used to play practical jokes on visitors. The registered Hereford cattle grazing in the pastures are descendants of LBJ’s original herd. Riding through rolling hills along the Pedernales, beneath towering pecans and live oaks, it is easy to understand why Johnson was so influenced by this land.

The state park also has picnic areas, a swimming pool (open Memorial Day through Labor Day), fishing along the Pedernales River, enclosures with Longhorn cattle and bison and a nature trail. Off this trail is the Sauer-Beckmann Farm, a living history site presenting farm life from 1915 (see December 2005 issue, “History by the Book,” page 56).

There are still working ranches around Johnson City, but most supplement their income with other activities. The Leon and Kay Lange family, second-generation ranchers, offer hunting leases and also rent out four houses on the 450-plus-acre property, a good way for city slickers to get a taste of ranch life. My youngest daughter, Bridget, and I spent a night at Lorenz’s Trapper Cabin, reached via a slow drive on unpaved roads through pastures dotted with grazing cattle. The house comes with a campfire pit to facilitate enjoyment of peaceful evenings, a screened-in porch with swing, fishing pond stocked with black bass and catfish and a large Jacuzzi tub and kitchen. Breakfast is provided and, even better, you don’t have to rise early to feed those cattle.

A less traditional ranch experience is available at The Exotic Resort Zoo, which rents out hillside cabins overlooking fields populated by zebra, buffalo, elk and other wildlife. Our front porch proved an excellent place from which to enjoy this unusual view, and an adjacent enclosure allowed us to pet donkeys, wallabies and goats. Overnight guests share a picnic area, barbecue grill, outdoor kitchen, pool table, swimming pool and hot tub, and a nightly bonfire is provided for each cabin. A nice touch of atmosphere: real antlers as door handles and towel racks.

Tours of the grounds come with each night’s stay, departing whenever guests are ready between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Next morning, secured in an open-sided trailer with a big bucket of feed, we bounced around the 137 acres, ardently pursued by hungry llamas, zebra, ostriches, elk and exotic deer. We fed many of the 500-odd animals by hand, then, after the one-and-a-half-hour tour, made short work of another bucket of feed in the petting zoo where various deer and an assortment of goats behave as if on the brink of starvation (probably not much different from other livestock).

The Benini Foundation & Sculpture Ranch, 140 hilly acres west of town, is populated not by cattle or camels, but by art work — several dozen large-scale sculptures, to be exact. Benini (no first name) has been an exhibiting artist since 1962. The success of his and other artists’ works, displayed on a rotating basis, has turned a Quonset hut original to the property into a studio building featuring 40 years of paintings. This ranch is open at no charge, but call ahead.

Okay, it isn’t a ranch, but Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area, about 20 miles west of town, does have nightly stampedes from May through October. That’s when as many as 3 million Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) emerge from the former railroad tunnel at dusk to feed on insects. Rangers recommend arriving a good half-hour before sunset; the waiting time can be spent on a half-mile nature trail or birdwatching. The lower viewing area placed us mere feet from the bats as they spiraled out of the tunnel and flitted about (sometimes right over our heads) before passing to either side of a large tree and rising into the ever-darker sky. Seen from the upper viewing area, the stream of bats stretches far across the hills, which turn beautiful colors in the sunset.

A 5,211-acre spread 9 miles east of town, the Circle Bar Ranch, became Pedernales Falls State Park in 1971. The park’s main attraction is the falls, which can be viewed from several scenic overlooks along the river. There are also picnic areas, campsites and miles of hiking, mountain biking, equestrian and backpacking trails through landscapes varying from rocky hills to wooded shores. Nearly 150 species of birds, including the golden-cheeked warbler, call the former ranch home.

Ranchers have always enjoyed a day in town, with a hearty meal no doubt topping the to-do list. Steak seems a natural choice in Johnson City, and the place to get one is the Silver K Caf in the Old Lumber Yard on Main Street — specifically the chile-rubbed rib eye, a 12-ounce steak hand-cut from a prime rib of beef, crusted with chile rub, pan grilled and topped with Bandera butter. For breakfast, we feasted on tacos at El Rancho Mexican Restaurant — fresh tortillas stuffed with goodies for only $1.19 each — and a cup of joe from the Lone Star Coffee Shop. Lunch options include the Pearl Tea Room, in the former Pearl Hotel, built by James Polk Johnson in 1893, and the appropriately named Fat Boy Burgers, which also has huge wraps and barbecue next door at Uncle Kunkel’s. Temptations Bakery on Main Street also lives up to its name with homemade baked goods, coffee and espresso, and Hill Country Cupboard beckons with burgers, catfish and a self-proclaimed “world’s best chicken fried steak” in no-frills surroundings (no problem if your boots are muddy). Chantilly Lace Country Inn, a few blocks from the square, is an in-town lodging option, with porches, gardens and afternoon tea. Rooms include a gourmet breakfast, and a carry-out menu available weekdays is perfect for picnics or lunch in the garden.

No trip to town is complete without shopping. Pick up some mesquite-smoked beef or turkey jerky, made locally by Whittington’s Jerky for more than 40 years and sold fresh at the company’s store. Or enjoy cedar furniture, fireplace mantles and more at the Broken Arrow Trading Post. Texas Hills Vineyard offers daily tastings from a selection of about 17 wines, also available for purchase. All in all, I think James Polk Johnson and his fellow settlers would have approved.

Details:

  • Johnson City <www.lbjcountry.com >
  • Exotic Resort Zoo (830) 868-4357 <www. zooexotics.com>
  • Country Cabins/Lorenz’s Trapper Cabin, (830) 868-7447 <www.countrycabinsbnb.com>
  • Chantilly Lace Country Inn: <www.chantillylacesoaps.com> (They also make soap.)
  • Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. Tours $6 adults, $3 ages 62 and up and 7-17 (under 6 free). Tours are free on August 27, the president’s birthday. (830) 868-7128 <www.nps.gov/lyjo>. Self-driving tours allowed from 5 p.m. to dusk (not including the ranch).
    Information on LBJ State Park, Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area, Pedernales State Park, <www.tpwd.state.tx.us>.
  • Texas Hills Vineyard (830) 868-2321 <www. texashillsvineyard.com>

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