In praise of a living history

Longhorn at LBJ’s Ranch

Winding our way through Texas Hill Country between Austin and San Antonio, avoiding the soul-sucking I-10, we found ourselves hankering for a destination. What about Luckenbach? Wasn’t there a song about Luckenbach? Or, wait. How about the 3 million Texas vineyards and wineries you’ve never heard of, each poised to gently siphon dollars from the pockets of a generally well-heeled Texan populace? (side note: the wealth discrepancy between Texas and Louisiana is shocking, just based on their basic amenities and the state of their roads)

In Fredericksburg, there’s no shortage of twee galleries selling bronze statuary of bucking broncs and roped calves, as well as the George Bush Gallery. There’s even the National Museum of the Pacific War (I don’t make this stuff up, because WHERE ELSE WOULD IT BE?) Turns out, Admiral Nimitz is from Fredericksburg, thereby corning the market on land-locked museums telling the Pacific War story.

We parked in a diagonal street-side set up; when getting back into the car after lunch, I was startled by a knock on my passenger-side window: a stetsoned gentleman had parked beside me in his blindingly white behemoth pickup truck. His wife, clutching her pearls on the boardwalk, thought he should at least offer to guide us out of our spot. Evidently our tiny VW Golf wasn’t much seen in this land of the behemoth white pick-ups, and she was afraid we’d get smoked trying to back up into the road.

She smiled when I declined. I think they were really worried for us, driving such a small car.

Ah, yes. A destination. This being Big Man Country (not to be confused with no country for old men, which I think is Arizona or New Mexico), why not Lyndon B. Johnson’s Ranch? It’s a national historic site or something.

Off we went.

Note to Texas Parks & Wildlife: The US Parks has a waaaaay better logo. I’m worried that your Starbucks green and copperplate font was whipped up by a summer intern.

The LJB State Park and Historic Site is fairly massive and has a herd of longhorn cattle, a tennis court, a swimming pool, and the Sauer-Beckmann Farm (Rural Life, 1900-1918) in addition to the ranch dubbed “The Texan White House”. While LBJ didn’t grow up on the Sauer-Beckmann farm, he grew up on one like it and one of the Sauer daughters was a midwife at LBJ’s birth.

The farm provides one of those truly delightful experiences for someone who works in museums–a kick-ass costumed interpretive staff. These guys were great. I got more information in a short amount of time than any 500-word text panel, computer interactive, or video presentation could possibly deliver. Our fellow, who was just hanging about, rendering lard, was interested in us, interested in what he was doing, and his delivery was gentle and to the point.

Part of what made the farm so nice was that it was specific. It had a story to tell: rural life in west Texas, 1900-1918. Full stop. That was its point and it knew it.

Free-range artifacts at the Sauer-Beckmann Farm

Artifacts were out in the open, giving heart-attacks to all good conservation-minded museologists. Their proximity led to several overheard conversations–an older gentleman remarking to his partner that he knew this piece of sheet music, or that grandma had something quite similar, etc.

There have been a few times this trip where I’ve had a good conversation with an interpreter or visitor services person or, hell, the waiter at Sabertooth Fine Foods in El Paso. These very human interactions are often down-played or ignored in museum interpretation and exhibition planning.

The American Parks service rotates volunteers through its sites. We met a terrific guide at the William Johnston House in Natchez (a good historic house that provides a nice counterpoint to all the well-I-do-declare Plantation tours that seem to say, “Wouldn’t it be nice to be a plantation mistress with all these slaves and such?”). The Parks training program must be fantastic, to produce such good humans.

But that’s it–the human touch. It needn’t be maudlin. Not robotic, nor heavily scripted. Just well-informed. My favourite way to get my interpretation fix.


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