How a U.S. president steered a Texas town into tourism 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ALLEN BEST
  • PHOTO BY ALLEN BEST

Fredericksburg, a town of about 10,000 people in the hill country of Texas, did not set out to become a tourist town. It was a farming and ranching center, originally settled in the 1840s by German immigrants.

It didn't start making its living as a host until the 1960s, a byproduct of its proximity to the ranch of Lyndon Johnson, who became U.S. president when John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. White House correspondents became aware of Fredericksburg, then one thing led to another. Pretty soon, the whole town was oom-pah-pahing and wearing a willkommen on its municipal sleeve.

I knew none of this history when I drove into Fredericksburg on a March evening. The day of our travel had been hot and humid. This is in peaches-and-pecan country, and the local newspaper reported that freezing temperatures several days prior had worried growers.

Fredericksburg was a byproduct of my curiosity about Lyndon Johnson. He was not charismatic and handsome, like Kennedy. but he succeeded where Kennedy had not, using all the tools of political persuasion and power to push his agenda of civil rights legislation, socialized medicine, programs to give those who were not born into wealth a better shot at success in life.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ALLEN BEST
  • PHOTO BY ALLEN BEST

Donald Trump is the inverse of Johnson in almost every way, from their upbringings to their agenda. Johnson was reared in modest circumstances about a half-hour away from Fredericksburg and then, as president, hosted heads of state from Canada and elsewhere at the ranch that he and his wife, Lady Bird, had acquired. That was my purpose in being in Fredericksburg, to know this place that produced the U.S. president I consider to be the most consequential since World War II.

Fredericksburg was more interesting than I had expected. It has a long main street lined with shops, teeming with pedestrians the night I spent there. Many shops play to the German heritage, and others to the traditional Texas themes. Think of a polka band in cowboy boots. Everywhere were white pickup trucks.

The Germanic roots are real enough. It was founded in 1846, the year after Texas became part of the United States and the same year that the United States invaded Mexico, to wrestle away California and other territory. The German immigrants had been drawn to Texas for a fresh start. At least part of what motivated their journey to the United States was war in Europe. Of this, I have some knowledge, as one branch of my antecedents emigrated from Germany in the 1840s, to avoid being drafted to fight against France or somebody. They arrived in the Chicago area to grub a living.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ALLEN BEST
  • PHOTO BY ALLEN BEST

War came to the German immigrants anyway. Texas joined the confederacy, although Fredericksburg settlers were generally against slavery and against secession. In response to this resistance came murder and terrorism.

A block off Main Street is a memorial to another war, all about the Pacific theater of operations and, in particular, the contributions of Chester Nimitz, who grew up in Fredericksburg but became admiral of the U.S. naval forces in the Pacific during World War II.

Adjacent to the Nimitz museum is a garden, a gift of Japan. It employs the principles of Zen Buddhism and traditional Japanese sensibilities in design. Think curves, not sharp corners, seemingly random placements. "Why would Japan provide this after what we did to them?" my companion asked, alluding to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "The Japanese did horrible things during World War II," I reminded her. "Then they became a pacifist nation." As they remain. A binge and then a teetotaler.

It seems every people has it within themselves to go on a bender of militarism. The Vikings were a bloody lot. Now, the nicest folks in the world.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ALLEN BEST
  • PHOTO BY ALLEN BEST

Fredericksburg lies within a 90-minute drive of both Austin and San Antonio, both of which have metropolitan areas that rank among the top 20 to 30 in the United States. Houston and Dallas lie a few more hours distant. These, I was told, constitute the primary markets for Fredericksburg. There is no down season except January and February.

Plus, in the last 10 to 20 years, there are the vineyards, everywhere along the highway to the Johnson ranch, where the president was born and where, at the age of 64, he died. Johnson City, his boyhood home, lies just a few kilometres farther.

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