Ranching the LBJ Way
Photo by Laurence Parent
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 Senator Johnson. He soon began what became a continual series of improvements to the newly christened "LBJ Ranch". Not everyone was confident that Senator Johnson could become a successful rancher. When Johnson 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 to creating a showcase 2,700 acre ranch, complete with 400 head of registered Hereford cattle. At the same time, 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 daily 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, President-elect John F. Kennedy, Reverend William F. (Billy) Graham, President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz of Mexico and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer 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 (FFA) 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 such as King Ranch Bluestem, Buffalo grass, Coastal Bermuda, and Alisa grass. 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.
Returning home to retire in 1969, Johnson continued to draw strength and solace from this ranch along the Pedernales River. His desire to leave a legacy of his accomplishment and to demonstrate the cultural and conservation practices associated with ranching prompted President and Mrs. Johnson to donate a portion of the LBJ Ranch to be added to the newly established Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Site. Johnson stipulated to park planners that the LBJ Ranch remain a working ranch, and not a "sterile relic of the past."
To that end, the National Park Service maintains a herd of Hereford cattle descended Johnson's registered herd and manages the ranch lands as a living demonstration of ranching the LBJ way.