In the Texas Hill Country, nothing says “party” like barbecue smoke, and judging by the size of the smoke cloud hanging like a fog bank over U.S. 290, the party in progress at the Stonewall Rodeo Arena was a whopper.
Traffic along the highway slowed to a crawl. Most of the time cars and trucks rolled through this tiny hamlet between Johnson City and Fredericksburg without stopping or even slowing down, but Aug. 29, 1964 was no typical Saturday night.
The President of the United States was in town.
Let’s just say it had been a big week for President Lyndon Johnson. Two days earlier he celebrated his 56th birthday.
To make the occasion even sweeter, that very week at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the Democrats chose him as their presidential candidate.
His name was the only one placed in nomination. The convention dispensed with the usual theatrics of a roll call vote and nominated him by acclamation.
LBJ was at the pinnacle of his political power. Never again would his popularity or his influence be so great. He was as famous as Elvis or The Beatles.
On Saturday, after a hectic week in New Jersey, the President and Lady Bird were back home in Stonewall. Senator Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, and his wife, Muriel, traveled to Texas with the Johnsons for some quiet R&R at the LBJ Ranch.
But Stonewall and the Gillespie County Democrats had something else in mind. They fired up the barbecue pit and threw a traffic-stopper of a party for the president at the Stonewall Rodeo Arena about two miles from the Texas White House.
The Democratic chairmen in a 14-county area sold tickets to the event for $2.50. Organizers expected a crowd of 3,000, but 4,600 showed up.
Volunteers hauled wood for three days to cook two tons of beef. Emil Birck of Birck’s Bar-B-Que in Fredericksburg was the pit boss.
The party began at 5 p.m., but the president and his entourage did not arrive until 8 p.m. By then, the crowd had already feasted on barbecue, ranch-style beans, potatoes and homemade bread.
Then, just before dark, a line of black limos pulled up next to the arena. Moments later, President Johnson stepped into the spotlight.
Right on cue, the Fredericksburg High School Band played a stirring rendition of “Hello Lyndon,” the President’s official campaign song. “Hello Lyndon” sounded exactly like “Hello Dolly,” the hit song from the Broadway play.
The program began as soon as the dignitaries found their folding chairs. Harold Carr of Radio Station KNAF in Fredericksburg was the master of ceremonies.
St. Mary’s High School Marychorale performed The Song of Fredericksburg written by Fredericksburg native Sister Elaine of Our Lady of the Lake College in San Antonio. The Fredericksburg High School Billiettes kicked up some dust with a dance routine.
By the time Cactus Pryor of KTBC Television in Austin stepped to the microphone, the crowd was ready for some nonsense. Pryor introduced The Geezinslaws, a musical/comedy act from Austin, who performed a new song called “The Ballad of Barry Goldwater.”
The song, sung to the tune of “Cool Water” by the Sons of the Pioneers, was a musical jab at Johnson’s Republican opponent in the upcoming presidential election.
President Johnson had no plans to speak at the event, but when he got there, he changed his mind. He spoke for 25 minutes.
After the president spoke, an enormous birthday card unfurled from above. Then organizers hauled in two giant birthday cakes. One cake was in the shape of the Unites States. The other cake spelled out LBJ.
Someone handed President Johnson a knife and asked him to cut the cake shaped like the United States. With great delight he plunged the knife straight into the heart of Arizona, the home state of Republican rival Barry Goldwater.
The president shook a few thousand hands that evening. The crowd slowly drifted away. The party at the Stonewall Rodeo Arena was over.
Traffic rolled through town without interruption.
The smell of barbecue hung around for days.
Michael Barr is a retired teacher and principal, living in Fredericksburg where he spends time writing books, columns and magazine articles. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.