INTRODUCTION TO JOHNSON CITY, TEXAS - By John Ronan Broderick
JOHNSON FAMILY GENEALOGICAL CORRECTIONS
The founder of Johnson City, Texas, James Polk Johnson, was undoubtedly named after U.S President James K. Polk, since Johnson was born in 1845, the same year Polk annexed Texas to the United States, precipitating the Mexican War of 1846. Polk and Johnson were also both Democrats, a political affiliation that persisted down through Lyndon Baines Johnson’s (LBJ’s) lifetime and continues to this day in his family.
In researching the origins of Johnson City, I encountered innumerable references to James Polk Johnson being LBJ’s great-uncle. But the same references said, too, that James Polk Johnson was also the nephew of Samuel Ealy Johnson Sr., LBJ’s grandfather. This was an incongruity that I, as an amateur genealogist, could not abide. Therefore, let us proceed, here and now, to rectify the historical record that seems to have been misconstrued and perpetuated as fact via mere repetition for well over a century.
LBJ’s grandfather, Samuel Senior, was the youngest of ten children. One of his elder brothers, Dr. John Leonard Johnson, was the father of James Polk Johnson, so James was indeed nephew to Sam Sr., who was only seven years older than James. Sam Sr.’s son, Sam Jr., was thus first cousins with James Polk, thereby making Sam Jr.’s son, LBJ, a second cousin to James Polk Johnson, not a great-nephew to him. Although LBJ had no less than three great-uncles on his father’s side of the family—Dr. John Leonard, Jesse Thomas (“Tom”), and Andrew—James Polk was most certainly not one of them. Admittedly, a minor correction to the historical record but nevertheless a necessary one to accurately set the stage for what followed. As the old axiom goes, “facts is facts.”
In a similar vein, some longtime Johnson City residents like to boast that LBJ was born there when in fact he was born in his grandfather’s cabin in Stonewall, some 16 miles west of Johnson City. Originally founded as the town of Millville in 1879, the same year Johnson City was founded, the name was later changed to Stonewall in 1882 in honor of Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Though the original cabin where LBJ was born was torn down in the 1940s, he had it reconstructed in exacting detail on its actual site, which is now part of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, the primary tourist attraction in the Johnson City area.
THAT STUBBORN JOHNSON CLAN
Upon his return from service in the Confederate Army after the Civil War, Samuel Ealy Johnson, Sr. and his brother Tom started a successful ranching and cattle-raising operation that eventually grew to be the largest in a seven-county area. They and their nephew, James Polk Johnson, also a veteran of the Confederate Army, conducted at least four cattle drives along the old Chisholm Trail with herds of 2,500 to 3,000 head of cattle, in all likelihood Longhorns.
They had established their ranch along the banks of the Pedernales River in the vicinity of what was to later become Johnson City. This was about 14 miles north of the town of Blanco, which had become the county seat of Blanco County when the county was created in 1858 by the state legislature via the appropriation of land from surrounding counties. This gerrymandering of county boundaries was a common occurrence in the early days of Texas.
This is where Texas state law of the period gets interesting. For it mandated that the county seat be located within five miles of the geographic center of the county, unless two-thirds of the voters decided otherwise. At the time, 1858, the town of Blanco was almost dead center of the county and there is no record of opposition from anyone to it becoming the county seat.
This was, however, prior to the arrival of the Johnson clan on the scene or to the subsequent alterations the state legislature made to the boundaries of Blanco County, e.g., to carve Kendall County out of a large chunk of Blanco County. In 1885 the voters of Blanco County approved an outlay of $27,000 to build a new county courthouse utilizing local limestone. It was one of the most magnificent county courthouses in the state, built in the architectural style known as “Second Empire.” It was to replace a more modest structure built in 1860.
In his July 1, 2017 column, “Hindsights,” on the website, texasescapes.com, Michael Barr does a superb job of recreating the history of what occurred next in his article, “[Looking back at a] Bitter Election in Blanco County,” which supplied some of the material for this section of my piece. Mr. Barr states:
“With a talent for political scheming and backroom bargaining—a talent inherited by Sam’s grandson, the one who became president of the U.S.—the Johnsons and their neighbors established a new town on the banks of the Pedernales River, strategically located near the center of Blanco County. From the beginning Johnson City had one major goal: to wrestle the seat of government from its neighbors 14 miles to the south. It took 12 years, some bloodshed and a lot of hard feelings to get it done.”
The brothers Johnson had dissolved their partnership in 1871 and sold their holdings to their nephew, James Polk Johnson, who in 1879 generously donated 320 acres (0.5 square mile) along the Pedernales River for the site of the new town, which was named in his honor. And thus were the battle lines formed.
After several petitions to the state legislature and contentious elections to try to get the county seat moved to Johnson City, the Johnsons and their cohorts finally succeeded in January 1890, when they won the election to settle the issue once and for all by a mere 65 votes. There were rumors of ballot-stuffing, a tactic LBJ was also accused of years later in one of his bids for election to the U.S. Congress. And there was even an Old West-style gunfight on election day between two men from opposing factions that resulted in one death and the wounding of a deputy sheriff. The man responsible for the mayhem was promptly taken into custody before an angry mob could arrange a “necktie party.” The perpetrator’s name and affiliation are lost to history, but I would wager he was from Johnson City.
In the aftermath of the change of county seats, the magnificent new five-year-old Blanco County courthouse, located in the city of the same name, has been used over the subsequent 130 years for a variety of purposes: school, town hall, theater, hospital, office building, museum, library, even a restaurant. Commonly referred to as “the Old Courthouse,” it was designated a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark in 1972. In the 1990s it underwent an extensive exterior renovation and was officially reopened in a ceremony over which then-Governor George W. Bush presided. It and 37 other buildings in Blanco are in the National Register of Historic Places.
JOHNSON CITY’S HISTORIC STRUCTURES PRESERVED AND STILL IN USE
The new Blanco County Courthouse in Johnson City was not constructed until 1916, some 25 years after the fateful election. A majority of the voters were apparently not anxious to see another large sum of their tax dollars spent so quickly on yet another fancy courthouse. It, too, is a magnificent structure built from Texas Hill Country limestone but was constructed in the architectural style known as “Classical Revival.” The building features Doric columns and a domed cupola. In 1983 it also became a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark.
As it so happened, in 1885 James Polk Johnson had under construction at the time of his premature death, at age 40, a building originally intended to be a general merchandise store. When the 1890 election moved the county seat to Johnson City, this building, still extant, was used as the interim county courthouse; its basement housed the county jail. The first church congregation in the city, the Methodists, met in an upstairs room of this building until they built their own church. Years later LBJ officed in this building as well. Presently it is home to the Johnson City Bank, which has been headquartered there since 1944. It is officially known as the James Polk Johnson Building.
After founding the town that bears his family’s name, James Polk Johnson made a successful transition from rancher to businessman. In 1880 he built a grist mill on Town Creek in what is now the heart of the city. It was a steam-powered cotton gin and grist mill that, according to the website, oldhouses.com, “featured unique mechanical innovations that were used to process, sort and distribute grain to its rural community. The original steam mill was converted to a flour mill in 1901 and later was converted to electrical power and evolved into a feed mill in the 1930’s. The mill ceased operation in the 1980’s.”
Now known as the Hill Country Science Mill, Johnson’s old grist mill is still standing 140 years later. Absent any big city skyscrapers, it serves as a beacon to this town of 2,100 for the weary traveler looking for something different in the way of a Hill Country experience. These days it serves as a family-oriented museum that offers fun, interactive learning experiences via technology-based exhibits and games. Visitors thus gain an understanding and appreciation for science as it relates to their everyday lives.
James Polk Johnson’s second entrepreneurial project was the construction of the historic Pearl Hotel, located on the town square across the street from where the Blanco County Courthouse would be built over 30 years later. I had the great pleasure to interview the current owner of the Pearl Hotel, Mrs. Charlene Crump, who gave generously of her time to provide a detailed historic account of this building that she purchased in 2007 and finished restoring in 2019. The only concessions she made to modernize the building were the additions of central heating and air-conditioning and a barrier-free downstairs bathroom. Otherwise, it is pretty much in the same shape as originally conceived in the early 1880s, right down to the clawfoot bathtubs.
According to Mrs. Crump, who spent much of her childhood in Johnson City and recently returned to her old hometown, the hotel was named after one of James Polk Johnson’s five daughters. He and his wife had eight children altogether. One wonders if Pearl was his favorite or if the children drew straws to determine who would have the honor of having the hotel named after her (or him).
Mrs. Crump also told me that the original hotel had a total of eight bedrooms (one for each Johnson child?) of the lath and plaster construction technique and a stucco exterior. There was a subsequent add-on of a kitchen and dining room in the early 1880s. Over the years she said the building has served as a stagecoach inn, a school, and a Western Union office.
Now Mrs. Crump conceives of it as a bed and breakfast inn suitable for a large family, where the parents can settle disputes over how long each child may spend in the lone upstairs bathroom. She washes her hands of refereeing such disputes, though she is quick to remind you that there are two additional bathrooms downstairs. Mrs. Crump is a very wise woman and pragmatic innkeeper and an absolute delight to talk to. Now that her restoration labors are complete, she hopes to have the Pearl Hotel added to the rolls of Recorded Texas Historic Landmarks. At age 80, she shows no signs of resting on her laurels. I have no doubt she will succeed in her next endeavor.
Toward the end of our friendly little hour-and-a-half-long chat, I remembered that this was an interview and I asked Mrs. Crump if she knew of any other buildings of historic merit in Johnson City. She instantly replied that the Dr. Barnwell House was located on the other side of the courthouse square from the Pearl Hotel, telling me that it also served as Johnson City’s first hospital.
Researching this lead a little later I learned that Dr. James Frances Barnwell built the 2,300 square-foot, two-story, four-bedroom house in 1913. He used the first floor as his family’s residence and the second for his medical practice, which included an operating room and recovery room, in essence, a hospital. When he died in 1934, his widow, who had also been his nurse, turned the building into a boarding house. It has subsequently been restored to its original glory by subsequent owners.
The last historic building I feel compelled to mention is the 1894 Blanco County Jail, which is, according to an article dated October 4, 2006, by Roger Croteau, on the website, myplainview.com, one of the oldest, if not THE oldest, county jails still in use in the state. Maximum capacity is seven inmates, also ranking it as the smallest. In 1893 the Blanco County commissioners spent the then outrageous sum of $6,450 to have it built after the basement of the James Polk Johnson Building proved inadequate for that purpose.
The jail’s most famous guest was singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker, who was arrested on a DUI charge in 1991 on his way to Austin from Luckenbach after playing a concert there with Willie and Waylon in that tiny town with a population of only three. Old Jerry Jeff must have had too much of that Sangria wine he sings about on Viva Terlingua, his landmark 1973 album he happened to record, coincidentally, at the Luckenbach Dance Hall.
Aside from these six structures—the 1880 grist mill, the early 1880s Pearl Hotel, the 1885 James Polk Johnson Building, the 1894 Blanco County Jail, the 1913 Barnwell House, and the 1916 Blanco County Courthouse—I could uncover no evidence of other extant historic buildings in Johnson City proper. The only exception to this is LBJ’s childhood home, which I shall cover in the next section of this article.
I am reliably informed by my new friend, Mrs. Charlene Crump, that a couple of fires in the downtown area over the years pretty much destroyed any other structures that may have been of historic significance. If Johnson City ever needs a new town historian, it would do well to look in Mrs. Crump’s direction.
LOCAL LEGACY OF LBJ, 36TH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES
The Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park is divided into the LBJ Ranch District and the Johnson City District. It was on the ranch that he was born in his grandfather’s cabin, but it was in his boyhood home In Johnson City that he was raised, thus he is claimed as one of their own, and rightfully so. LBJ’s father Samuel Ealy Johnson, Jr. purchased this Folk Victorian house in town in 1913, when LBJ was five years old, for $2,925, which included the surrounding 1.75 acres. And it was here that LBJ lived all the way through his high school graduation. On the grounds of the site are a museum and structures appropriate for their time. The home is managed by the National Park Service and has been restored to what its appearance would have been during LBJ’s teenage years, i.e., in the mid-1920s.
That portion of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park known as the LBJ Ranch District, in Stonewall, 16 miles from Johnson City, contains: the reconstructed cabin where LBJ was born; the “Junction School,” the first school he attended as a four-year-old; the sprawling “Big House,” a Southern term used to denote the main dwelling on a ranch or plantation; once LBJ became President, the ranch house became known as the “Texas White House” because he spent about 20% of his time here, the first president to set up an functioning office in a home away from the real White House in Washington, D.C.; the family cemetery, where both President and Mrs. Johnson are buried; a huge outdoor museum; and the landing strip and hangar he used to fly into the ranch in the 13-passenger, VC-140 Lockheed JetStar nicknamed “Air Force One Half.”
The federal government rescued the aircraft from its “bone yard” storage facility in Tucson, Arizona and spent $261,000 to get it in shape to return it to its rightful home at the Texas White House, even giving it a shiny new paint job that replicates the outside of Air Force One. I am indebted to Denise Gamino’s October 7, 2016 article, “Piece of flying history lands on LBJ ranch,” which was posted on statesman.com, for the details about the plane’s restoration and return.
And then there’s the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site, across the Pedernales River from LBJ’s ranch. Situated on 733 acres and maintained by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the park offers visitors recreational facilities including swimming, fishing, tennis, baseball, and a nature trail for hiking. The park rangers even maintain small herds of Texas Longhorn cattle, American Bison, and White-tailed deer.
The park is also home to the Sauer-Beckmann Farmstead, a living history farm that presents the rural life of an early German-Texan farm family as it was circa 1918. According to the Texas Hill Country Trail website, “Johann and Christine Sauer built the homestead’s original timber and rock cabin in 1869. The Beckmann family purchased the farm in 1900 and, with the proceeds of a good cotton crop in 1915, added a barn and a Victorian home. The original smokehouse, windmill and water tank complete the living history farmstead.”
Park employee/interpreters attired in period clothing perform daily routine chores such as blacksmithing, soap making, and butchering, using period tools and techniques. This place should be at the top of any history buff’s bucket list of things to see in Johnson City. As tight-knit a community as Johnson City was (and is), where everybody knows everybody, there is little doubt in my mind that the Sauers were well acquainted with the Johnson brothers, Sam and Tom, and their nephew James Polk, or that the Beckmanns were on at least speaking terms with Sam Jr. and his boy, Lyndon.
“CROSSROADS OF THE TEXAS HILL COUNTRY”
Given Johnson City’s strategic location at the intersection of U.S. Highways 290 and 281, it can justifiably lay claim to the title, “Crossroads of the Texas Hill Country.” For these two highways are the gateways to many points—north, south, east and west—of the Texas Hill Country, which has been labeled the “Tuscany of Texas.” These highways lead to such storied Texas Hill Country towns and cities as: Marble Falls, Dripping Springs, Fredericksburg, New Wimberley, Boerne, Kerrville, Bandera, and New Braunfels.
Within a 25-mile radius of Johnson City, the adventuresome, nature lover sort will have easy access to many natural sights and wonders such as: Hamilton Pool Preserve, which features swimming in a natural pool complete with a 50-foot waterfall and surrounded by a grotto created by massive erosion of an underground river thousands of years ago; Pedernales Falls State Park, consisting of 5,211 acres, eight square miles, where tubing, swimming, hiking, camping (69 campsites), horseback riding, fishing, bird-watching are all available, plus the huge slabs of layered limestone where the falls are located, and the Wolf Mountain Trail, which is an 8.25 miles loop around the park ending up at the Pedernales Falls; Reimer’s Ranch Park that features climbing and mountain biking; and the Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center, a 30-acre nature preserve.
The most recent (2020) estimate of the population of Johnson City is 2,118. That’s about a 143% increase since the 1980 U.S. Census of 872 souls. As of December 2019, the overall median age is 45.1; population density is 1,173 people per square mile; the town has grown from the ½ square mile patch of land donated by James Polk Johnson in 1879 to 1.74 square miles; 25.8% of the citizens are of Hispanic or Latino heritage; and the average family size is 3.1.
World Population Review is an incredible source of demographics information. What follows is only a snapshot of their statistics: Johnson City is the 579th largest city in Texas; average household income is $52,909; poverty rate is 12.43%; median rental cost is $806; median house value is $179,000; there are 103.3 males per 100 females; 958 males and 927 females.
Racial makeup, according to the ACS (American Community Survey) is as follows:
White: 1,677 (88.97%)
Other race: 122 (06.40%)
Native American: 74 (03.93%)
2 or more races: 7 (00.37%)
Asian: 3 (00.16%)
African American 2 (00.11%)
High school graduates: 583 (44.30%)
Bachelor’s degree: 154 (11.70%)
Graduate degree: 54 (04.10%)
Primary language spoken: English, 79.96%; Spanish, 19.49%; Other, .55%.
Veterans: 109, all males; the breakdown by war they served in is as follows:
Vietnam: 48 (53.9%)
First Gulf War: 33 (37.1%)
World War II: 5 (05.6%)
Korea: 3 (03.4%)
Place of birth:
05.31% Foreign born
In this town of 2,118 folks it is easy to see what one of the key industries of the area is: ALCOHOL! For I counted no less than 20 wineries, breweries, and distilleries, all within 10 or 15 minutes of Johnson City. Good ol’ boy bootleggers and moonshiners don’t stand a ghost of a chance in this town. Shoot, they’ve got one alcohol-producing facility for every 100 residents. I wonder how many AA clubs they’ve got here?
To make things a little more time-efficient for the harried, hurried tourist, I’ll arrange these manufacturers of spirits by city: Stonewall—Becker Vineyards; Hye—Blue Lotus Winery/Texas Mead Works, Garrison Brothers Distillery, Horn Winery, Hye Cider Company, Ron Yates Wines, William Chris Vineyards, Zero 815 Winery; the remainder all appear to have Johnson City addresses—290 Wine Castle Chateau de Chasse, 290 Vinery, Carter Creek Winery Resort and Spa, Crowson Wines, Farmhouse Vineyards—Tipsy Trailer, Lewis Wines, Pecan Street Brewing, Reck ‘Em Right Brewing Company, Rowdy Flock Distillery, Siboney Cellars, Texas Hills Vineyard, Vinovium Wine. And just think: LBJ grew up in this town during Prohibition. Sure looks like Johnson City is making up for lost time.
TEXAS TROUBADOURS, HOTELS, RESTAURANTS, AND CHURCHES
It’s a good thing that the tourists to this area who may’ve spent a little too long in the wine-tasting rooms or at the Luckenbach Dance Hall have an abundance of places they can hole up for the night. Otherwise they may wind up sharing a cell with Jerry Jeff in that 1894 County Jailhouse. Of course, Waylon and Cash are no longer with us, but thank God, the elder statesmen of that crowd, Willie and Kris, are still going strong at 87 and 83, respectively. Aside from them, Jerry Jeff is the oldest of that crew, at 78. And Jerry Jeff’s old pardner from Viva Terlingua, Gary P. Nunn, at age 74, is probably singing “London Homesick Blues” in some Texas honky-tonk tonight. Thank goodness we’ve got those youngsters, Lyle Lovett, 62, and his old Aggie roommate, Robert Earl Keen, 64, to take up some of the slack. But I digress.
I am quite sure that any of the aforementioned musicians, when tempted to drive through Johnson City from Luckenbach to Austin “under the influence” well recall Jerry Jeff’s detention and decide to head instead to one of Blanco County seat’s finer hostelries, among them The Crossroads Inn, Walden Retreats, Rose Hill Manor, and—for goodness sakes—don’t forget about the historic Pearl Hotel in downtown Johnson City, across the street from the Blanco County Courthouse and not far from the county jail. Besides these four there are at least 16 other area hotels, inns and B & Bs to fit any taste or budget. ‘Cause there ain’t no air-conditioning in that 126-year-old county calaboose. Just ask Jerry Jeff!
And as far as tying on the feed bag, well, there’s an abundance of locally owned and operated restaurants that can fill the bill: Bryans On 290 can satisfy anyone raised on homemade bread pudding; try the “ultimate grilled cheese” at the East Main Grill; El Charro’s is a Mexican food lover’s Paraiso; Ronnie’s Ice House Barbeque serves up some mean ribs, pork steaks, potato salad and sauerkraut; Hometown Donuts is where local law enforcement hangs out; though pretty renowned for their burgers and fries, you don’t want to miss out on Fat Boy Burgers’ world-shaking onion rings and fried catfish; and in Stonewall there’s the Cowboy Cantina and the aforementioned Rose Hill Manor, a local favorite for its French toast, eggs Benedict, and crab cakes. There are others, too, but I’m running out of room, so I better head on to church.
And what better way to say a benediction to this article than to close out with a reference to those institutions that undoubtedly had more to do with the perseverance of this little Hill Country town than any other factor--the dozen or more Christian churches that are the proverbial light on a hill? What better place to be on a “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” as envisioned by Kris Kristofferson, than a small country town in the Texas Hill Country? I can think of no better place. Heck, they’ve even got Faith Christian Cowboy Church in Johnson City, Texas. Amen, brother!
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