Cattle sale – LBJ style

By Dale Roberson

In honor of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’ s birthday this week, former Publisher Dale Roberson gives us a few memories.

In May 1973 I was editor of the now defunct Seguin Enterprise. At the time, I received a cattle auction announcement. Usually I would not have been interested in a cattle sale, either personally, or as a news item. But this sale was to be held at the LBJ State Park and Historical Site.

The late President Lyndon B. Johnson’s cattle were going to be sold at the LBJ Ranch.

I decided to attend.

That Saturday morning early I left home in Driftwood and headed toward Stonewall west of Johnson City.

When I arrived at the ranch a Park Ranger met me at the gate. I showed him my Texas Press Association credentials and was issued a yellow tag with the words “NEWS” in large letters followed by “LBJ RANCH CATTLE AUCTION – MAY 21, 1973” and a box for my signature.

At that time the ranch was 732 acres. Originally designated as a National Historical Landmark, President and Mrs. Johnson donated it to the state in December 1969. It was later added to the National Registry of Historic Places, then as a National Historic Park in Dec. 1980 and has grown to 1,570 acres.

The property was purchased with funds gained from an investment Lady Bird made with part of her inheritance. Her father had left her part of his estate of some 15,000 acres of farmland and two grocery stores.

In 1943 she invested $17,500 from money she had inherited from her family estate and bought a radio station in Austin. She served as president of LBJ Holding Company and against her husband’s advice, bought a television station in 1952. She reportedly told LBJ she could spend her inheritance however she wanted.

Eventually her initial investment turned into $150 million. She was the first U.S. President’s wife to have become a millionaire in her own right before her husband was elected to that office.

The ranch became known as the Texas White House with the 36th president spending some 20% of his working time there.

I drove in, parked and strolled toward the three large tents not far from the ranch house that promised to be the center of activities. The setting reminded me of a scene in the movie “Giant.”

The first tents shaded tables set up for a barbecue lunch. At the end of the first tent the famous Jetton BBQ outfit from Fort Worth had set up a spit with a whole steer turning slowly over a Hill Country oak fire.

The aroma of both the oak and the meat was alluring.

I asked the fellow managing the cooking about cutting up and serving the meat from the calf.

“Oh, this is only for looks,” he grinned. “After this is over we’ll either give it to a needy family or just discard it.”

To me discarding it seemed like a huge waste just for show. My children would have delighted at some steaks even if they came from a tough little steer.

Walter Jetton, then designated the “King of Barbecue,” had been LBJ’s pitmaster since they met when U.S. Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn invited him to Washington DC to cater the Texas State Society Dinner in 1951. (See Daniel Vaughn’s article in Texas Monthly, July 2015.)

The crowd, made up of many well-known and well-heeled Texans was gathering with “Howdy” and “How y’all doing?” creating a cacophony throughout the shaded areas.

Then, a louder noise drowned out the jovial chatter when a helicopter approached.

Lady Bird and the rest of the Johnson Birds arrived in a whirlybird.

Alighting from the craft were the former First Lady, daughters Lynda Bird Johnson Robb and husband Charles and Lucy Baines Johnson (then) Nugent and husband Patrick. All were wearing western-style checkered shirts. If I recall correctly, the lady’s were red, the men blue.

They made their way into the first tent greeting friends and strangers alike.

Lady Bird was particularly sociable, working her way slowly along stopping to speak freely with each person. One person she spent quite a bit of time with was the president’s former Press Secretary Bill Moyers.

The whole milieu was near LBJ’s boyhood home where the president was born and died and close to where he is buried. We were given a guided tour of the house. It looked like many other early century farmhouses I had seen.

After the family, all the guests and potential cattle buyers had eaten lunch and enjoyed their social time; it was time for the business at hand – selling cattle.

LBJ had built a herd of registered Hereford bulls, cows, heifers and cow/calf pairs. Unlike polled animals today they had substantial horns. Either for the cosmetic or a compassionate reason, the president had his cattle branded on the horns instead of burning his mark into their hide. Horn is made up of keratin much like fingernails, thus with no nerves, therefore no pain.

Perhaps the reason for this could be explained by a story LBJ told Doris Kearns and was told in her book “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream.” He said the first time he killed an animal, a rabbit, was to prove to his father he was not a coward. Following the kill, he said, “Then I went to the bathroom and threw up.”

Even today, when cattle of the LBJ line are sold by Four States Classic auctioneers of Hope, Arkansas, the animals bear “LBJ” burned into one horn and the registration number burned into the other.

The tent for the sale was set up before a set of chutes where the animals were paraded out for buyers to see. The auctioneers sat at a table facing a set of bleachers. Other bleachers were placed at each side facing inwards. The Johnson family sat on one side, accompanied of course, by secret service personnel.

We of the press and other observers sat in the bleachers on the other side where we could look across the small arena toward the family.

I sat up a several tiers high to maintain a site for shooting pictures. Some time into the sale Lucy Baines’ husband Patrick left the family seating area and, obviously not caring about Secret Service protection, came across the arena and sat on one of the lower seats in front of me. I don’t know why.

After a while, Lucy came over and whispered something in his ear. A short conversation later they rejoined the family. They have since divorced.

For most of the rest of the afternoon, cattle were paraded before the buyers, sold and taken back to be loaded into trailers.

I left, happy to have witnessed such a historic Texas-style event.

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