Of Soil and Water: Life on the LBJ Ranch

A herd of scattered cows stand in the shade, under arching branches of a tree.
The Hereford cattle herd and groves of live oak and specimen trees provide a direct link to the interests and life of Lyndon B. Johnson.

NPS Photo

President Lyndon B. Johnson once stated:

I guess every person feels a part of the place where he was born. He wants to go back to the surroundings that he knew as a child and this is my country, the hill country of Texas. And through the years when time would permit, here is where I would always return, to the Pedernales River, the scenes of my childhood. There’s something different about this country from any other part of the Nation.

This lifelong connection to place is evident at the LBJ Ranch, part of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park to the west of Austin, Texas. The cultural landscape contains features representing the ancestry, life, and legacy of the 36th President of the United States.

LBJ’s relationship to this south-central Texas landscape begins when his grandparents first settled here, and continues through his birth, boyhood, political career, retirement, and finally burial in the family cemetery.

A Landscape History

"I guess every person feels a part of the place where he was born."

Long before German farmers and Anglo-American ranchers settled in the Texas Hill Country, Native Americans inhabited the region. Archaic hunter-gatherer cultures and, more recently, tribes that included the Tonkawa, Apache, and Comanche shaped earlier cultural traditions and land use.

The first record of agricultural use on the land where the Johnson family would settle dates to 1882, when Wilhelm Meier purchased the property. The Meier family was part of the wave of German immigrants that arrived into the Hill Country in the late 1800s, tranforming the landscape in terms of vernacular design and use.

A family of ten poses along a fence in a dirt yard in front of the Johnson family home.
Johnson family in front of the Johnson family home, which was the birthplace of Lyndon B. Johnson. Sam Ealy Johnson, Sr., grandfather to LBJ, stands at the center. The reconstructed birthplace that stands on the site today was built from recollections and photo evidence of this home.

NPS Photo, date unknown

Lyndon Johnson gained ownership of the family property in 1951, which included the site where he was born in 1908. By the mid-century, land use practices were changing and ranching was increasing in specialization. Unlike other ranchers in the area at that time, he was not reliant on the profitability of the ranch because of his political career. Without strict economic constraints, he had more freedom to develop the property to suit his interests and activities, which centered on raising show-quality Hereford cattle.
A goat sticks its nose through a space in a metal and wooden fence.
Historically, the Show Barn cluster included a group of structures that were central to the ranching operation and the display of livestock. The barn, pens, and corrals are still used to showcase the animals (including goats) and for the functioning of the ranch.

NPS Photo

The herd of Hereford cattle that grazes at the site today is directly descended of the original LBJ herd. The NPS continues to operate the park unit as a working ranch, maintaining many of the agricultural practices and features that defined the character of the LBJ-era ranch and made a year-round cattle operation possible in the Texas Hill Country.

The features found in different areas of the park are reminders of the multiple uses of the property. In addition to developing the property as a place to raise and show Hereford cattle, his political career also necessitated the construction of non-ranching features like an airstrip, security and communication features, and the expansion of the residence to accommodate guests.

A Texas Ranch

The selection of this location for settlement, the cycle of floods and droughts, and the features designed to support agricultural and domestic life on the ranch all indicate the vital role of water in shaping the ranch landscape.

This area has a long history of dramatic and unpredictable weather. Storms can bring flooding and winds, and drought is a reality of this Texas region. While these forces can be damaging, they also have shaped the character of the property. The Pedernales River that bisects the LBJ Ranch defines and directs natural systems. Periodic flooding has enriched the alluvial terrace with new soil, and native live oaks grow around the property.
This availability of water, drainage, and rich soil was attractive to the early settlers who farmed and ranched here. However, what appeared as abundant pastureland was a fragile resource, grown over many years on a thin layer of soil atop limestone. Heavy livestock grazing significantly impacted the composition of grasses and subsequent soil erosion.
A still, round water pool is surrounded by a gently-rolling agricultural landscape.
LBJ developed the ranch with water tanks such as this one, pastures for grazing, and oats for cattle feed.

NPS Photo

During his tenure, Lyndon B. Johnson experimented with new farming techniques, such as the construction of large, geometrically-shaped agricultural fields and field terracing. The fields help minimize soil erosion and direct run off water to a series of nine earthen “tanks,” or ponds. The tanks were designed in response to the sometimes-unpredictable precipitation. Along with the irrigation structures and systems that pumped water from the Pedernales River, these water features supported the crops and livestock with a minimum of maintenance.

Live oaks (Quercus virginiana) are scattered in the agricultural fields, casting shadows over the fields and protecting the cattle from the scorching Texas sunshine. As the sun crawls through the hot summer sky, the herd circulates between sunny, open areas of the river bottoms to the shady areas under the oaks.
Leafy trees scatter along the perimeter of a gently rolling field of green grasses.
Vegetation of the Agricultural Complex at LBJ Ranch can be divided into the Wildflower Space, the Cultivated Fields, Tank Vegetation, and the Pecan Orchard.

NPS Photo

The vegetation that grows in the cultivated fields is much the same as that which was grown during the Johnson era. In addition to crops like oats and barley, Johnson planted non-native Bermuda grass and hybrids like sorghum-sudangrass for grazing. Four corrugated metal hay sheds were built to store hay and shelter cattle and equipment.

Of course, ranching methods and tools have changed from the time of the early German immigrants, to LBJ’s tenure, to today’s National Park Service management. The ranch operation continues to reflect the period when it was under LBJ’s ownership, although some of the features are used primarily for interpretation and the NPS has decreased the intensive use of agrochemicals.
The Johnsons operated the LBJ Ranch as a working ranch and a home between 1951 and 1973. Lady Bird Johnson continued to live at the house until her death in 2007.

In a eulogy for Lyndon B. Johnson delivered to a joint session of the 63rd Texas Legislature on January 25, 1973, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Homer Thornberry said, “In the rugged Hill Country just west of here he developed the strength of character, the courage, the vision, the sense of realism, the compassion which enabled him to perform with effectiveness the tasks of his office."

A Living Reminder

The agricultural features throughout the landscape demonstrate the allure and challenges of settlement in the region, as well as LBJ's continued involvement with the working ranch throughout his life.

Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson were actively interested in experimental techniques directed at sustaining the health and conservation of the site, and the development of sustainable operations by the National Park Service continues to be characteristic of historic land use at the ranch.

Today, the landscape is a living reminder of the ways that Lyndon B. Johnson was connected to this Texas landscape in his political and personal life. To recall the words of LBJ himself, “…every person feels a part of the place where he was born.”
The inground pool is to the left of the ranch house, surrounded by a neat lawn and tall oaks.
The Texas White House was a residence for the Johnsons, headquarters for LBJ during his tenure as US President, and a focus of life and activity within the LBJ Ranch District. It's also only one part of a landscape of natural and built features.

NPS Photo

Cultural Landscape Inventory Reports for Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park

Lyndon B Johnson National Historical Park

Last updated: May 20, 2019