Barbecued meat has played a surprisingly important role in United States presidential politics over the years. George Washington was a Virginia-style barbecue enthusiast. He fed his soldiers a barbecue feast at the end of the Revolutionary War. When the cornerstone of the Capitol building was laid, he presided over the event that had a 500-pound ox barbecued old Virginia-style.
Adams wrote that barbecues “tinge the Minds of the People, they impregnate them with the sentiments of Liberty. They render the People fond of their Leaders in the Cause, and averse and bitter against all opposers.”
Recently, archaeologists discovered a barbecue pit on the south lawn of Montpelier that was in use during Madison’s lifetime. As President Jackson was traveling to Fredericksburg to attend a barbecue, the first recorded instance of physical assault on an American president occurred. A soldier who had faced a court-martial for misconduct stopped the President on the road and grabbed President Jackson’s nose and shook it as retribution, before running away.
After the civil war, and before television, when many Americans weren’t guaranteed three solid meals a day, a free barbecue dinner was a compelling incentive to listen to a politician pitch for votes.
But one President made barbecue an art form.
On today’s episode, the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, the Texas White House as it’s known, in Stonewall Texas.
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As a teenager, Lyndon Baines Johnson spent summers helping out on his Uncle Clarence Martin’s cattle ranch along the Pedernales River. Johnson’s attachment to this land was strong, having been born down the road on a farm which had originally been settled by his grandfather. Young Lyndon’s fond memories of family gatherings at the Martin house and his daydreams of becoming a rancher were the genesis of his desires to one day own this piece of the Texas Hill Country.
In 1951, Johnson’s widowed aunt gave him that chance. In return for a lifetime right to Johnson’s mother’s house in Johnson City, Frank Martin gave her dilapidated 250-acre ranch to the then-senator. He soon began what became a continuous series of improvements to the newly christened “LBJ Ranch.” Not everyone was confident that Senator Johnson could become a successful rancher. When he applied for a loan to purchase cattle, Percy Brigham, Blanco National Bank President reportedly told him, “Lyndon, if you want to just walk around in yellow cowboy boots and proclaim yourself a rancher, that’s one thing. But if you intend to make money ranching, I hope you know something about cattle.”
But Johnson applied his prodigious energy and determination into creating a showcase 2,700-acre ranch, complete with 400 head of registered Hereford cattle. All at once, he acquired the image of a western rancher and a place to recharge his batteries. Both of these contributions from the LBJ Ranch would be invaluable as he entered the harsh spotlight of national politics.
During his demanding tenure as Senate Majority Leader, Vice-President and finally President of the United States, Johnson still managed to keep his finger on the pulse of the LBJ Ranch. His near-daily phone calls from Washington to check on the rainfall or the suitability of a pasture for grazing were often frustrating for Johnson’s ranch foreman, Dale Malecheck. But it was these discussions of routine matters that helped give Johnson a sense of control in a decade marked by divisive social issues and fracturing foreign conflicts.
The LBJ Ranch also served as Johnson’s stage. Visitors to the ranch included notable figures like President Richard M. Nixon, President Harry S Truman, then President-elect John F. Kennedy, Reverend Billy Graham, the President of Mexico and the Chancellor of West Germany. Guests would be loaded into one of the white Lincoln Continental convertibles for a personalized tour of the ranch, often at dizzying speeds.
No tour would be complete without a drive through the center of the Show Barn to admire the prizewinning Hereford cattle. Registered Herefords sold for breeding purposes constituted a large portion of a rancher’s income, and stock shows played a large part in determining the worth of select animals.
Cattle were painstakingly pampered and groomed for these shows in the Show Barn. Prize-winning cattle would command higher prices when sold as registered bulls or show calves to 4-H Club members, Future Farmers of America students, and other ranchers. Johnson was keenly aware of the practical advantage to winning such prizes. He would often drive past the scale and loading chute near the Show Barn, telling his guests, “That’s where the cattle go out and the money comes in.”
The Show Barn was a symbol of Johnson’s increasing sophistication. The center for Johnson’s early ranching operation was the Martin barn near the main ranch house. With cattle operations located so close to the main house, guests would often watch, and, more often than not, interfere with the ranch work. Mrs. Johnson did not relish the thought of someone getting hurt and she did not particularly care for the smells and noises of the nearby cattle. To alleviate his wife’s concerns, President Johnson moved his cattle operation in 1966 to a new Show Barn about a mile north of the house.
During his presidency, Johnson signed into law almost 300 bills dealing with environmental protection and other resource conservation issues. At the LBJ Ranch, he utilized new ranching practices that demonstrated these stewardship concepts and increased the revenue potential of the ranch. Pastures were fenced to allow grazing rotation, fields were terraced to prevent soil erosion, and “tanks” or ponds were constructed to catch surface water run-off. More than 1,100 acres were planted in improved varieties of grasses. Johnson built one of the first liquid fertilizer plants in this area and had the ranch soil analyzed to determine the proper ingredients for the fertilizer. With additional irrigation and fertilizer, a rancher could graze two cows and calves per acre, instead of the one cow and calf per sixteen acres that was more typical for an unimproved pasture. The LBJ Ranch became the flagship of the various ranching properties owned or leased by President Johnson.
But beef wasn’t just grown at what became known as the Texas White House. It was consumed there.
Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson hosted large Texas-style barbecues along the Pedernales River in a grove of trees near their home. Guests-of-honor hailed from such places as Mexico, West Germany, Pakistan, and from nations throughout Latin America.
As his political career progressed, the barbecues got bigger and more elaborate, and as more important guests came to Hill Country, Lady Bird remodeled the home to host them in style. The ranch eventually included several guest suites, a swimming pool, a radio tower, and an airstrip capable of handling small jets.
Walter Jetton was his caterer of choice, and he fed a group of three hundred at the first barbecue state dinner. It was held on December 29, 1963 for the West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard. LBJ would continue to host heads of state and diplomats at the Texas White House throughout his tenure.
One of the largest barbecues was on April 1, 1967, with 35 Latin American ambassadors and their wives. There was a huge re-enactment of the settling of Texas by Native Americans, followed by Spaniards, then Anglo cowboys, complete with buckboards and cattle. The menu included 30 gallons of ranch beans, potato salad, sourdough biscuits, stewed apricots, corn on the cob, brisket, spare ribs, half chickens, and beef turned over a fire on a spit. Ribs and little sausages were served as hors d’oevours.
The many civil accomplishments of the Johnson administration were overshadowed by his catastrophic handling of the Vietnam war. The president decided not to run for re-election and returned home to retire in 1969, where he grew his hair long, drank, smoked, and listened to Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” over and over. When his daughter tried to pull him out of the funk, he said, “No, I’ve raised you girls, I’ve been president, and now it’s my time.”
Johnson recorded an hour-long television interview with Walter Cronkite at the ranch on January 12, 1973, in which he discussed his legacy, particularly with regards to the civil rights movement. He was still smoking heavily at the time, and told Cronkite that it was better for his heart “to smoke than to be nervous.” Ten days later, at approximately 3:39 p.m. Central Time on January 22, 1973, Johnson suffered a massive heart attack in his bedroom. He managed to telephone the Secret Service agents on the ranch, who found him still holding the telephone receiver, unconscious and not breathing. He was airlifted in one of his own planes to San Antonio and taken to Brooke Army Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. He was 64 years old.
The Johnsons donated the ranch to the nation, with the stipulation that it continue to be operated. To that end, the National Park Service maintains a herd of Hereford cattle descended from Johnson’s registered herd and manages the ranch lands as a living demonstration of ranching the LBJ way.
The Lyndon B. Jonson National Historical Park is located both in Johnson City, Texas, and 14 miles down the road in Stonewall. Visit Johnson City first, where you’ll see the National Park Service visitor center, with a museum containing many artifiacts of the Johnson presidency. Here you can take a 1-mile round-trip trail through the historic Johnson settlement – 1800s cabins and barns belonging to Johnson’s ancestors. You can also take a ranger-guided tour of Johnson’s boyhood home.
The Texas White House on the LBJ Ranch is located in Stonewall, and it is a National Park Service site, but to get to it, you have to make a stop at the LBJ state park visitor center, where you get a free permit to drive into the ranch. It’s a bit strange, but there’s also a nice film and some more Johnson memorabilia at the state park.
When you drive onto the ranch property, just outside the main entrance sign is the one-room schoolhouse Johnson studied in. He returned here to sign the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with his grade school teacher at his side.
As you continue into the ranch, you’ll pass a recreation of of Johnson’s birth home, and then the modest Johnson family cemetary, where the President is buried.
You then drive through the pastures where Johnson’s still active herd of Hereford cattle roam, encircling the LBJ airstrip, and passing the infamous Show Barn. You’ll then park at yet another visitor center, which is hard to miss because it has a Lockheed JetStar — a former Air Force One — emblazoned in a presidential paint job sitting outside.
In the visitor center, you can sign up to take a tour around the Texas White House. They don’t allow people into the house anymore due to structural concerns, but you walk around it and see in the windows, and gaze at the famous swimming pool. There’s also a wonderful collection of Johnson’s favorite cars, including a firetruck just for the ranch, and a rare amphibious car he used to scare guests in, pretending the brakes were failing while driving into a pond.
The text for this episode was written in part by the National Park Service.
Music for this week’s episode is provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.