Deep in the Heart

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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 16, 2007

STONEWALL, Tex., July 15 There's been bountiful rain this spring and summer in the Hill Country here. Instead of sun-parched fields, blankets of startling green lie between the stony hills. The bluebonnets are gone for the season, but the Indian paintbrush and mountain pinks, sunflowers and black-eyed Susans blaze near fields of lush alfalfa. "Wildflowers are weeds without press agents," Lady Bird Johnson liked to say, rarely acknowledging that she had become their best publicist. In turn, they stood sentinel across the landscape and in loose bouquets, clutched by many of the thousands who lined the highways to see the former first lady pass by one last time.

On its way to the family ranch here Sunday, the ceremonial cortege bearing her pine casket went through Oak Hill and Dripping Springs and Henly, amid the spreading live oaks and ubiquitous dark-green cedar, and into Johnson City, where almost every utility pole was festooned with wildflower wreaths, and then through Hye, a village where years ago President Lyndon Johnson swore in a postmaster general on the steps of the old post office. Finally, the procession rolled toward the Johnsons' beloved ranch, past grazing goats and cattle and orchards laden with golden fruit. It's been a good year for peaches, observed Jim Deucker, who watched from his fruit and vegetable stand.

Under a canopy of live oak trees, in a tiny cemetery on the ranch, Lady Bird Johnson, who died Wednesday at 94, was buried Sunday afternoon beside the husband who had died 34 years before. At a short graveside ceremony near the banks of the Pedernales river, attended by 300 family members and close friends, her daughter Luci Baines Johnson said, "You taught us to leave the world a better place than we found it."

The Hill Country, this highland area west of fast-growing Austin known to geologists as the Balcones Escarpment, is vastly different today from the region Lady Bird first saw nearly three-quarters of a century ago, when the ambitious young man she had agreed to marry took her home to Johnson City to meet his parents. Together, the Johnsons had much to do with the region's transformation.

Then, it was poor and isolated, with no phones and no paved roads to connect its residents to markets and the rest of the state. Its farmers and ranchers -- and particularly their wives -- toiled from morning to night with no electricity to ease their burdens or extend the daylight hours for reading, no electricity to run appliances and farm machinery, to lift water from their wells, to connect them to the world beyond the hills that hemmed them in.

With its huge Spanish oaks and riotous springtime wildflowers, its spring-fed streams and welcoming glades, it may have been lovely, but as Johnson biographer Robert A. Caro put it, the Hill Country was "a trap baited with grass," its soil too thin and its rainfall too unreliable to sustain a dependable farming and ranching operation. It was susceptible to drought and to floods -- like the one this summer that dropped 19 inches on nearby Marble Falls -- and its residents were susceptible to desperation, particularly during the Depression, when Lady Bird discovered the region.

Her husband helped rescue them. As a young, hard-charging congressman who had grown up in the area and as an enthusiastic New Dealer, he relied on his connections to President Franklin Roosevelt to bring electricity to the isolated farms, ranches and small towns. Seeking to help his congressional district, not to mention his financial benefactors -- Herman Brown and Dan Root of the engineering firm Brown & Root -- he championed a series of dams on the Colorado River that brought flood control and electric power, tourism and development to the long-neglected region. In essence, he played a key role in bringing the Hill Country into the 20th century, nearly four decades after the fact.

The rest of Texas discovered the Hill Country when Austin and San Antonio residents began to build second homes in the area, and Houstonians began sending their kids to summer camps alongside the clear running streams. The rest of the country discovered the region when then-Vice President Johnson dragged the news media and the occasional office holder or head of state to his LBJ Ranch on the banks of the Pedernales. Reporters began to write about the charms of nearby Fredericksburg and Kerrville, the quiet beauty of the hills and streams.

When the Johnsons left Washington and returned to their ranch in 1969, Lady Bird turned her energies to sustaining the wild places alongside the modernizations of the Hill Country. Her first project was Austin's Town Lake in the heart of the capital city, creating winding hike and bike trails and boating opportunities by the towering cypresses along its banks. Next was the center to protect and preserve North America's plants and natural landscapes.

She believed in diversity, both ecological and cultural, said Susan Rieff, director of the center, now called the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Native plants and trees defined diversity for her. Once she had to gently scold Georgia highway officials who were so proud of their roadside poppies -- transplants from California.

"She worried about the homogenization of America," Rieff said. "She was so far ahead of her time. Forty years ago she was talking about a sense of place. She was talking about concepts of sustainability."

She prodded the Hill Country towns to embrace development with care. Fredericksburg, an old German town 20 miles west of the ranch, was the first and the most successful. Blessed with a stock of tidy stone cottages and a commercial strip of old stone buildings nobody cared enough about to tear down, the town decided to capitalize on its German heritage and its architectural treasures. By the 1980s, Fredericksburg had become a magnet for tourists, drawn to a town with a tangible sense of place. Fredericksburg officials were so proud of their heritage and so confident about the vitality of their tourist-based economy, they even insisted that Wal-Mart conform to the town's design standards. That's almost unheard of in Texas.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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