The number on the sign hasn’t been updated but I can’t imagine who really minds.
Johnson City, Texas, population 1,627
Stonewall, Texas, unincorporated, last recorded population, 525
Lyndon Town is a photo essay from these two towns, 15 miles apart in an unnamed valley of Texas Hill Country, that are the birthplace, home, and final resting place of the 36th president of the United States, Lyndon Johnson.
What do towns so small, with such a seemingly tangible, global legacy look like 50 years on?
This is the landscape of a presidency, as it is now.
July – Seven co-ed Blanco County Democrats ride on their Independence Day parade float, while five Republican women fill theirs. As a grinning elderly woman drives passed on a miniature antique tractor the man next to me mutters, “Hey Helen.” The diner staff are deeply in the weeds at lunchtime, a new deputy is being trained on the metal detectors (i.e., me) at the Blanco County Courthouse and the Dairy Queen is hiring at $16 an hour.
September – Finally find access to the Pedernales River in the form of clear green pools filling in the limestone, one of them just big enough for me to sit in and cool off. Of all the far-flung capitals in the world that Air Force One could have landed in, Lyndon Baines and Claudia Alta Johnson were just 231 miles from home…in an American downtown…when the gunshots were fired that put their family in the White House. For some reason, sitting here I keep coming back to that thought. A three-and-a-half-hour drive from home, having already been in San Antonio, Houston, and Fort Worth that morning for breakfast. They did not make the final planned stop in Austin.
November – The diner is back on its game and a woman comes in proudly showing friends a homemade Dallas Cowboys wreath, all blue and silver loops and layers as complex as a solar system. At the LBJ Ranch, I’m curiously assured, unprompted, that when a member of the sacred longhorn herd on-site passes away…it is in fact, not eaten. Which is not an assumption I would have made.
Plaque on the gate of the Johnson family cemetery
Elegy written in a country churchyard
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea
The plowman homeward plods his weary way
And leaves the world to darkness and to me
December – First Christian Church is presenting a live nativity, “Shows begin every 30 minutes” and I watch people carry flowers out of the funeral home. In Stonewall, the woman running Weinheimer & Son General Merchandise (since 1906) knows everyone’s name but mine. Cheryl is looking for wood glue, men come in for lotto scratchers and cold cuts, and my hecho-en-Mexico cowboy hat (size 6 7/8) cost $34.98.
As I turn onto the highway that leads home I feel emotionally brave enough (questionable) to listen to Willie Nelson’s “Across the Borderline” album. That gentle deity of our Central Texas experience. It makes me think about a person’s legacy in the place they’re from. How is it commemorated, or not.
Lady Bird Johnson, that patroness of the wildflower, is much more outwardly worshipped in the region than her husband. There are no presidential cardboard cutouts at the 7-Eleven. Outside of the official sites of former homes, there are some street names, a school, a photo hanging in the courthouse hall, same as any revered judge or local Olympian or schoolteacher.
The landscape is a patchy rust of fall leaves, like the trees aren’t sure how to do it.
January – The storm comes up quick. Black clouds, the temperature plummets. Most of us are headed into El Charro for lunch anyway, where there’s a $4.49 margarita special and the boss man at the table of National Park Service officers and their unarmed friends assures them that he’s never getting married again.
February – The wind today puts a burn ban in effect. The manager of the diner is placing her order for the week, in extensive Spanglish, before leaving for vacation. The older man working the feed store counter tells me the surrounding valley/land hasn’t really changed since he was growing up, which is nice to hear. The younger men at the loading dock in back are having to toss out bags and bags of feed because they got moldy, which bums us all out.
On the drive home, the company on the side of the road, at times, feels transcendent of decade, or administration – billboards trumpet land for sale and a sex shop called Cowgirls & Lace. (Which a quick Google search informs me later is actually a fabric showroom and window treatment store. My bad.) A banner in the same small-town square advertises a Wild Game Dinner coming up and the dark canopy of cumulus-level vultures never clears; Lutheran churches made of blinding white limestone, fireworks stands, cattle of every color and goats of every size, a taqueria at every gas station, hay being ferried from here to there – the impact of a president (past or present) on daily life out here, can be as distant as it is literal.