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The Days of LBJ

Written by Howard Peacock.
LBJSam Johnson went to Austin on business one day–his home was about 50 miles west of Austin–and came back with a radio that was the talk of the town. He had paid $150 for the device. When his neighbors heard about the purchase, one commented, "Sam must have slipped a cog between his ears," or something like that, and others nodded. In those times, when most folks in the hills were struggling to wrest a mere living from the hard-scrabble soil, 150 bucks was Big Money. We're talking 1925.

Not only did Sam pay the big bucks; when he wanted to listen to the radio, he had to remove the battery from his Model T Ford and hook it up to the radio for power. Then, when the listening ended, he would unhook the battery and tote it back to the car.

But Sam knew what he was doing. An educator and six-term Texas legislator, Sam knew the value of communication, especially when it was fast and factual. That high-falutin' radio offered a direct line to events and information throughout the vast world beyond the caliche dust of Johnson City.

Sam and his wife, Rebekah, who was descended from the prominent Baines family of Blanco, had a stringbean son, their first-born, who showed a remarkable talent early in boyhood for grasping and even debating "civics," as the subject was called. It embraced politics, social problems, government actions, and citizens' responsibilities. The couple especially wanted that son, named Lyndon Baines, as well as their other children, to have the benefit of actually hearing presidential speeches and debates involving political and public leaders.

When an important speech was scheduled for broadcast, Sam and Rebekah invited friends and their families to their home to hear and discuss it. After the speech was over, the young 'uns were divided by age into two debating teams. They were expected to discuss and argue various points of view on the broadcast topic. Lyndon was the star.

Essentials

The National park is made up of two districts, one at the ranch near Stonewall and one in Johnson City. The Johnson City District opens daily 8:45-5; both districts close Thanksgiving, Dec. 25, and Jan. 1. Wheelchair accessible. Scripts of film and audio presentations are available for the hearing-impaired.

The Ranch District offers a bus tour of 6 widely-spaced historical sites, ranging from the president's birthplace to the Texas White House, where LBJ died, and the family cemetery. Trained interpreters double as bus drivers. Tours leave daily, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., and take about 75 minutes. Board buses at the Visitor Center at the state park, 1 mile east of Stonewall. Tickets: $6, $3 ages 7-17 and 62 and older, free age 6 and younger. Bus tours are free on Aug. 27 (LBJ's birthday). Private auto tours, permitted from 5 p.m. to sunset, offer exterior views of the Junction School, the Birthplace, and the Cemetery.

The Boyhood Home in Johnson City has trained interpreters to describe frontier family life there and answer questions. They greet visitors and start tours on the hour and the half-hour, except on the 3 days of the year that the park closes.

Special events for students, teachers, and the public are presented throughout the year. Call 830/868-7128; www.nps.gov/lyjo; for the state park, call 830/644-2420; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/lbj.

Books

The Path to Power by Robert Caro (Knopf, 1982); Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream by Doris Kearns (Harper & Row, 1976); Lone Star Rising by Robert Dallek (Oxford Univ. Press, 1991); The Politician–The Life and Times of Lyndon Johnson: The Drive for Power, from the Frontier to Master of the Senate by Ronnie Dugger (Norton, 1982); and The Great Plains by Walter Prescott Webb (Grosset & Dunlap, 1931).

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