Story by Daniel Blue Tyx // Photographs by Tom McCarthy Jr.
Rising from crystalline springs west of Fredericksburg, the Pedernales River meanders just 106 miles through the Hill Country before emptying into Lake Travis. Yet within its short course, the river crosses a multitude of landscapes, from rolling ranchland to steep limestone canyons. Each topography in turn has its own story to tell, from 10,000-year-old artifacts to hardscrabble German settlements and the birthplace of the nation’s 36th president.
“Here is where I would always return, to the Pedernales River, the course of my childhood,” reminisced Lyndon B. Johnson in a quote inscribed at his namesake state park and historic site. Another LBJ quote on a nearby plaque reinforces the Pedernales’ influence, not just on the former president, but on its inhabitants throughout time: “It is impossible to live on this land without being a part of it, and without being shaped by its qualities.”
My family of four had briefly visited the Pedernales area once before and was immediately taken by the beauty of the river’s aquamarine path through hills of limestone and juniper. This time around, we planned a longer visit that would allow more time to explore Pedernales Falls State Park’s 5,212 acres and the historical and cultural attractions that line the river valley. Along the way, we hoped to follow in the footsteps of LBJ (the only modern president who was born and died within a mile of the same place) and his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, learning about the elemental pull this land held for the first couple and maybe experiencing that magnetism for ourselves.
Our home base for the long weekend was Flat Creek Crossing Ranch, located next to the state park, which offers eight rustic cabins along with its own network of trails and a beach on Flat Creek, a tributary of the Pedernales. We’d booked the Cactus Cabin, which was decorated with succulents planted in rusted iron wagons on either side of the front steps. Upon arrival, though, we found the cabin’s real feature attraction was a rooftop deck affording a spectacular view of the surrounding hills and the distant outline of the Pedernales itself.
Stepping inside, she handed the kids a junior ranger book with a scavenger hunt and a map, which would prove useful in navigating the numerous LBJ sites, both at the state park and the adjacent national park on the Pedernales’ opposite bank.
Our first stop was the state park visitor center, where a museum explores the history of the river valley’s Native American, Spanish, and German settlements through a rich collection of maps, artifacts, historical documents, photos, and even a kid-friendly exhibit about each culture’s cuisine. The first part of the display traced the arrival of Native American hunter-gatherers to the Hill Country more than 10,000 years ago. The arrowheads and other tools they fashioned from the riverbed’s deposits of flint rock eventually inspired the river’s name; Spanish missionaries, arriving from Mexico in the mid-1700s, christened it the “Pedernales” after the Spanish word for flint. The museum also chronicles the arrival of German immigrants in the mid- to late 1800s, some fleeing religious persecution and others seeking economic opportunities—especially the chance to own their own land, since many were farmers. That was around the same time that LBJ’s grandfather and uncle, who were struggling farmers from the Deep South, founded Johnson City as well as the ranch that’s now a park.
The history we learned about in the museum came alive on a visit to the nearby Sauer-Beckmann Farm, a working farm at the state park where visitors can observe the daily activities of a typical late-19th century Texas-German family. The farm preserves the original rock-and-wood cabin where German immigrants Johann and Christine Sauer lived with their 10 children—one of whom was LBJ’s midwife—as well as the Victorian homestead constructed by Emil and Emma Beckmann, who bought the property in 1900.
Miss Berne, a grandmotherly matron dressed in period costume, met us at the gate, along with a sociable calf named Belle. To the children’s delight, Miss Berne—park volunteer Berne Mitton in real life—invited them to help with the chores, starting with collecting eggs from the henhouse. The kids carried the eggs to the kitchen and watched Miss Berne crack them into a bowlful of cookie batter next to a cast-iron stove.
Pulling ourselves from the cozy warmth of the kitchen, we piled back in the car and followed the map’s self-guided tour of both the state and national parks. Among the national park’s many points of interest are LBJ’s modest birthplace, the one-room schoolhouse he attended, the cemetery where LBJ and Lady Bird are buried, LBJ’s ranch—still in operation today—and the airplane hangar that houses Air Force One Half, the pint-size version of the president’s official aircraft specially built to land on the ranch’s short runway.
The tour culminated in a ranger-led visit to the Texas White House, the stately riverside home LBJ retreated to as often as possible during his presidency, sometimes receiving visiting dignitaries there. The Johnsons bought the 1894 home in 1951 and completely remodeled it. After Lady Bird passed away in 2007, the National Park Service preserved the home with many of the furnishings the Johnsons had personally selected. “It’s a typical 1960s ranch home with 1960s furniture and 1960s colors—lots of tangerine and avocado green,” Park Ranger David Graveline said, although he also pointed out that every room, including the bathrooms, had a telephone in case the president needed to be reached in an emergency.
Tom McCarthy Jr