The land that shaped LBJ: Texas ranch shows President Johnson’s struggles, triumphs

Friday, Aug. 3, 2018 10:53 PM
When former President Lyndon Johnson returned to his ranch after leaving the presidency, he let his hair grow long.
A pasture where the late U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson often strolled to clear his mind is shown in Stonewall, Texas, as part of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park.
The boyhood home of future U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson is shown in Stonewall, Texas, as part of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. Johnson grew up on the ranch in rural Texas and retreated there after leaving the presidency.
Cars often driven by the late U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson are shown in Stonewall, Texas, as part of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park.
On Nov. 4, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson proves he’s a pretty good cowhand as he puts his horse, Lady B, through the paces with a Hereford yearling on his LBJ Ranch near Stonewall, Texas.
An entrance to the LBJ Ranch at the Lyndon B. Johnson Ranch in Stonewall, Texas.

STONEWALL, Texas – Fifty years ago, a depressed President Lyndon Johnson decided not to seek another term. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated. Cities were burning in riots. College students marched against the Vietnam War.

Four years earlier, Johnson had won re-election in one of the greatest landslides in U.S. history and passed a slew of bills ensuring civil rights, fighting poverty and expanding educational opportunities. Now, with the nation in turmoil and his approval ratings in decline, he was set to leave office.

Back at his Texas ranch, he wondered: Where did it all go wrong?

That ranch is often viewed as a place where a heartbroken president went to die. He left office in January 1969 and had a fatal heart attack at the ranch four years later, at age 64.

The “Texas White House,” the family ranch of Lyndon B. Johnson, is where Johnson often retreated during his presidency. The LBJ Ranch is where Johnson was born, lived and died.
Associated Press file

But any visit to the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park in Stonewall, Texas, shows how important this sprawling place was to his world view, planting notions about battling poverty and inequality. He was born there and his family suffered misfortunes there, but even after exiting the White House, he thrived there.

“All my life, I’ve wanted to enjoy this land,” Johnson said after leaving office. “I bought it. I paid it off. I watched it improve. It’s all I have left.”

A simple, harsh lifeLocated in Texas Hill Country about an hour west of Austin, the ranch offers free tours led by park rangers, but visitors can also obtain free driving permits to explore the grounds with an audio tour on their own.

Guided tours begin at Johnson’s humble childhood home. The original structure was built in 1889 by Sam Ealy Johnson Sr., the president’s grandfather. It was reconstructed in 1964 from photos and outfitted with period furnishings illustrating the family’s simple but harsh life in rural Texas.

The boyhood home of future U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson is shown in Stonewall, Texas, as part of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park.
Associated Press file

The president’s father, Samuel Ealy Johnson Jr., served in the Texas House of Representatives but struggled as a farmer and cattle speculator. His unsuccessful business ventures meant there was no money for Lyndon to attend an expensive college. Instead, he studied at Southwest Texas State Teachers College after a stint as a day laborer.

While taking classes, he worked for a year teaching poor Mexican-American children in a segregated school in Cotulla, Texas. An exhibit at the ranch visitor center includes photos of him with former students and an audio recording in which he reflected on his teaching experience in a speech to Congress.

“Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child,” the president said as he urged Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act and expand anti-poverty programs.

Texas White HouseDuring his years as president, the ranch served as the Texas White House. Johnson invited members of Congress and world dignitaries to “relax” here, but usually they ended up being cajoled by Johnson into endorsing a policy or idea.

Tours these days include visits to the airplane hangar with a refurbished presidential plane and a mobile structure used by television reporters. Aides often briefed the president about the Vietnam War or pending legislation while Johnson swam nude in the ranch pool.

Agriculture Sec. Orville Freeman tries to square away Mr. I.Q., a balky pig during picture session at the LBJ ranch in Stonewall, Texas. President Johnson stands in background, center.
Associated Press file

The ranch also was a place of laughter. On Nov. 21, 1964, a day before the one-year anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination – the event that had catapulted Johnson into the presidency – Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman tried to subdue a balky pig at the ranch. Johnson watched, laughing as Freeman wrangled with the animal, named Mr. I.Q.

The president and Lady Bird took strolls in a meadow where he paused to see the lights of nearby towns that once had no electricity. As a U.S. senator, Johnson was responsible for bringing power to the area.

‘Now, it’s my time’When Johnson returned here after leaving the White House, he drank, smoked, let his hair grow like the young hippies who cursed him and listened to Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” over and over. When one of his daughters tried to intervene, he said, “No, I’ve raised you girls, I’ve been president, and now, it’s my time.”

The presidential office in the one-time Texas White House during ceremonies to commemorate the 100th birthday of former president Lyndon Baines Johnson at the LBJ Ranch, located near Stonewall, Texas.
Associated Press file

Sometimes, he acted like he was still in office, holding meetings with Secret Service agents on ranch matters like they were national security gatherings. The former president would get on a walkie-talkie to a foreman to ask about any out-of-place cow.

Johnson died at the ranch in 1973 just a few weeks after President Richard Nixon called to tell him that the U.S. would soon leave Vietnam.

Reflecting on a lifeIt’s easy to drive away from the LBJ Ranch feeling melancholy. After all, Johnson came into the White House with such promise and left as the country descended into social and political turmoil. Some of those divisions remain today.

But it’s also worth contemplating the ways in which Johnson changed with the world around him. As a young senator, he all but supported white supremacy only to become a president who signed two landmark civil rights bills and instituted the anti-poverty policies of the “Great Society.” He expanded a war, then agonized over it.

This ranch fed that transformation.

If you go

LBJ RANCH: 199 State Park Road 52, Stonewall, Texas, an hour’s drive west of Austin; Open daily. Free.