Way back in 1967, local boosters in Gillespie, Blanco, and Hays counties got together and devised the President’s Ranch Trail, a 100-mile drive from Stonewall to San Marcos, tracing the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was in the last years of his term as president of the United States.
There were ceremonies and a map, but the trail never gained traction until after Johnson left office, when most of the significant sites went under the oversight of the National Park Service and Texas State Parks. Significant infrastructure to accommodate tourists has since been added. And it’s all free.
I was intrigued by Johnson, the 36th president of the United States and the first president from Texas. That lofty position assured a legacy, much of which is enshrined at the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum in Austin.
But to fully appreciate the person, you need to visit the place where he came from, where the land and water and structures vividly tell the story of Johnson’s life. More than any single person, LBJ transformed his beloved Hill Country, bringing electricity and dependable water to people who had neither, then putting the region on the map as president, spending so much time at his Stonewall ranch, it became known as the Texas White House.
Studying the original map and factoring in modern road conditions and population growth, I devise an amended President’s Ranch Trail, focusing on Stonewall and Johnson City, and leaving out the 38-mile leg from Blanco to San Marcos through Wimberley. The trail can be covered in a single day or broken up into a two-day adventure.
I start in Johnson City, just west of the junction of US 281 and US 290. At the corner of East Ladybird Lane and South Avenue G is the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Site Visitor Center, within eyesight of the family home Johnson lived in while growing up, and, nearby, the Johnson settlement, the root source of the LBJ saga.
At the visitor center, I watch the 15-minute introductory film LBJ The President, learn more about his legacy reading the exhibit panels, check out the Model T given to LBJ by the Henry Ford Museum, and visit with Joe Owens, the friendly host behind the counter.
“I was a social studies teacher and love history,” Owens tells me. “I get to meet people from all over the country, all over the world.”
The annual visitor count coming off pandemic closures is about 140,000, and would be higher, Owens says, if the Texas White House wasn’t closed for repairs. (After Ladybird Johnson died in 2007, the family home was given to the National Park Service and opened to visitors. Since 2018, however, structural and foundational issues plus needed improvements have forced its closure.)
When other folks drift into the visitor center, Owens pulls out three matching maps of the ranch district and the Johnson City district and goes into detail about what there is to see and do. I choose to begin at LBJ’s boyhood home—a white clapboard structure with green trim and high ceilings—the next block over.
The family moved into this house in 1913 and lived there until Lyndon left for college in San Marcos in 1927. The simple frame house on Elm Street is deceiving: The Johnsons were already well-connected, with cousin James Polk Johnson founding the town of Johnson City, and Lyndon’s father, Sam Ealy Johnson, serving five terms as a state legislator. Ten years after he left for college, Johnson stood on the home’s front porch to announce his candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Across the street from the visitor center, at Elm and Avenue F, is the headquarters of the Pedernales Electric Cooperative, which puts up Christmas lights that are as spectacular as those around the Blanco County courthouse four blocks north. The co-op, created through Johnson’s persistent lobbying as a congressman, brought electricity to the Hill Country.
Following Owens’ directions, I head to the Johnson settlement, two blocks by foot, or easily accessed from the Johnson Settlement Event Center parking lot, four blocks west on US 290, just across from a gas station.
A half-mile gravel loop leads to the settlement’s event center, and a collection of 19th-century cabins, a barn, and corrals with longhorns over the fence line. Lyndon’s grandfather, Sam Ealy Johnson Sr., and his great-uncle Tom Johnson based their cattle operation here from 1867 to 1872. Sending cattle to market up the Chisholm Trail, theirs was the biggest trail-driving outfit in Blanco and six adjoining counties.
From the settlement on the western edge of Johnson City, I continue west 10 miles on US 290 to the settlement in Hye, passing manicured estates of wineries, distilleries, meaderies, and cideries—the new ranches of the Hill Country. On the left, at the turnoff to Hye-Albert Road, is the storied Hye General Store and Post Office, where 4-year-old Lyndon mailed his first letter, according to the historical marker at the entrance. The storefront, built in 1904, was gussied up in a red, white, and blue motif for LBJ’s 1965 swearing-in of new U.S. postmaster general Lawrence O’Brien on the front steps. Today, the post office shares space with Farm Ale Brewing, which is opening a new tasting room soon.
Continue west 3 miles on US 290 to the visitor center for the LBJ State Park and Historical Site. Pick up a pass to drive the LBJ Ranch (no charge). The visitor center also features tchotchkes at the gift shop, a life-size Lyndon to pose next to for photos, and a theater showing films about LBJ.
Next stop is a few hundred feet east of the visitor center on Park Road 52: the living history homestead of Sauer-Beckmann Farm.
“We do everything as if it’s 1918,” says Mark Itz, a fifth-generation Fredericksburger dressed in buckskin who works at the farm as a state park ranger. He and volunteers guide visitors through the vegetable garden, canning room, blacksmith shop, and sewing room where Kathy Catlin shows off her seamstress skills. You can also watch demonstrations of how to feed the domestic stock, gather eggs, chop wood by hand, and keep the wagon wheels turning,
“We just cooked our lunch on the wood stove,” Itz says. “Ground meat, rice, onions, squash, sweet potato. We make our own blood sausage, liver sausage, and head cheese.”
Itz then answers a question about what he misses the most living in 1918. “Electricity would be the biggest thing,” he says. “We didn’t get that here until 1945.” He then explains how Congressman Johnson secured the largest loan for rural electrification ever to establish the Pedernales Electric Coop in 1942.
“And vehicles,” Itz adds to his answer, “although folks around here continued using wagons to haul stuff because the beds of early pickup trucks were so small.”
From the living history farm, it’s across the Pedernales River, the lifeline that nourishes this part of the Hill Country, to the LBJ Ranch, a 2,000-acre spread that Johnson purchased from his aunt in 1951 when he was a United States senator. LBJ’s message “All the world is welcome here” greets visitors beginning the loop around the ranch.
I glimpse inside the Junction School, the classic one-room school where little Lyndon first attended class, and where President Johnson initiated the Head Start education program for underprivileged children. This is followed by the small house marking LBJ’s birthplace (reconstructed in 1964), his grandparents’ house nearby, and the family cemetery.
Heading north, west, and south on the paved one-lane ranch loop (also popular with cyclists), you pass fallow fields, manicured grazing pastures, herds of whitetail deer, a massive irrigation pivot, the show barn with its pens and corrals where LBJ’s prized rust-colored Hereford cattle are housed (ranch hands will answer your questions), the airstrip, and other points of interest.
The drive leads to “Air Force One-Half,” as the small Lockheed jet was called by LBJ. Situated in the adjacent hangar is the National Historical Park Visitor Center for the Texas While House, the Johnson’s home away from Washington, D.C. An exhibit panel highlights the movie nights hosted at the Texas White House in this hangar, a Resistol hat and pair of Lucchese boots—signature presidential wear—a view of the storage room filled with gifts that LBJ bestowed on guests, and a Ladybird-centric room.
The star attraction, though, is the family home, which is currently off-limits. Lack of funds stalled repairs, but it is now on track to reopen within the next five years.
While that may have kept the visitor count down, according to Joe Owens, it’s still fun to check out the grounds where LBJ staged barbecues and walk past the small cottage identified as the United States Secret Service Command Post.
Side Trip: LBJ Museum of San Marcos
While the big LBJ Presidential Library in Austin is a destination unto itself, the little LBJ museum on the square in downtown San Marcos complements Johnson’s Hill Country. According to director Debby Butler, the small three-room museum is dedicated to Johnson’s time as a student seeking a history teacher’s certificate at Southwest Texas State Teachers College, now Texas State University, and the two years he spent teaching at the Welhausen School for Mexican children in the South Texas community of Cotulla.
The museum also functions as a small-scale version of the national and state park visitor centers’ exhibits, with the addition of text in Spanish as well as English. Listen to audio of LBJ speaking (and telling some pretty good jokes) while viewing panels that chronicle his initiatives including the Civil Rights Act, the Economic Opportunity Act, and the Wilderness Act, and the Space Race. You can also see Lyndon at leisure, including a photograph of the president dancing with his favorite actress, Carol Channing. Among the displays is an exhibit case featuring a colorful array of Johnson campaign buttons and a yellowed original front page of the San Marcos Record announcing Johnson’s death.
The San Marcos Museum informs visitors that Johnson wasn’t just class president, but he was also on the debate team and president of the college’s press club. A black-and-white photo series from 1957 shows him physically cajoling another senator, speaking volumes of LBJ’s persuasive powers. Upstairs is a re-creation of Ladybird’s whistle-stop campaigns by train, along with exhibit panels about her life. Three panels feature her powerful conservation speeches at the Padre Island National Seashore, Big Bend National Park, and Fort Davis National Historical Site. I appreciated reading the reprint of a homesick letter he wrote to his mother, also a school teacher, when he was teaching in Cotulla, in which he writes “Babtist” for Baptist—written like a true Texan.
After a pause by Trinity Lutheran Church (where Lyndon and Ladybird attended Sunday services when they were on the ranch), I turn onto Lower Albert Road, crossing US 290 and continuing south 3 miles down a road past real farms that once dominated the area. Albert, a quick left on FM 1623, consists of a historic dance hall and adjacent icehouse/bar, surrounded by a spacious open picnic area with the Cowboy Cantina food truck.
Just beyond the dance hall is the turnoff to a gate and a sign identifying the building on the other side as the Williams Creek School House. This is where LBJ attended school for a year when he was 4 (clearly, a watershed year for the young fellow). The school is now the Albert Community Club and open for club events only.
Less than a half-mile farther east on Farm-to-Market Road 1623, take County Road 206 (Hye-Albert Road) 5 miles back to Hye, then go 5 miles back to 290. Johnson City, your starting point, is 10 miles east. Altogether the route is about 50 miles and can be done in a full day, or two-days if you prefer a more leisurely visit. There are plenty of quaint places in the area for an overnight stay.
The land, you will discover, shaped the man. And this particular man had enough prominence and clout to preserve and honor the places and people who made it that way. Everything’s OK on the LBJ.