While spending some time in Albuquerque, New Mexico a few years ago, several readers urged us to visit Tinkertown, a short drive into the Sandia Mountains on the northeast side of the city. In fact, there were so many people suggesting it that we had to check it out to see what all the fuss was about. And I’m glad we did because the place was amazing and will delight the child inside of everyone who visits, no matter their age.
Billed as New Mexico’s premiere folk art museum, Tinkertown is the lifework of artist Ross Ward, who spent over 40 years carving, collecting, and building Tinkertown. Ward used over 50,000 glass bottles to build a maze-like 22-room attraction that houses a fascinating collection of antiques and memorabilia, including old coin operated sideshow machines like Otto the One-Man-Band and Esmerelda the Fortune Teller. Drop a quarter in the coin slots and they come to life.
There is so much to see at Tinkertown that it’s hard to choose a favorite. Probably the most fascinating are the thousands of animated miniature wood carved figures arranged in hilarious scenes. One diorama is an Old West town, another is a circus, complete with trained tigers and acrobats, yet another is a spooky Boot Hill, complete with dancing skeletons. The figures were originally part of a traveling exhibit that appeared at county fairs and carnivals across the country in the 1960s and 1970s.
There are also collections of antique tools, wedding cake figurines, old toys, and dolls. There is even a neat old 35 foot long wooden sailboat that Ward’s brother-in-law spent ten years sailing around the world in.
Outside are Old West storefronts, metal sculptures made from trash and castoff farm machinery, and more. One of the many signs in the museum pretty much sums it all up with a quote by Thomas Edison, “Invention consists of imagination and a scrap heap.”
This was evident in all of Ward’s work. The old time soda fountain in one of his dioramas is a good example. The bar is an old sewing machine drawer, the marble tables are linoleum samples, the fan is a wooden drawer pull, the Coke dispenser is a thread spool, and the floor is a shoe box cover. As Ward said, “Ideas are everywhere. Pick them like flowers.”
There was probably nobody else in the world who could have envisioned what would become Tinkertown but Ross Ward. He was born to create, to paint, carve, and tinker. Growing up in the Midwest, he was captivated by the tiny villages, farms, and circuses created by “spare time carvers.” He began carving circus figures while in junior high school and they are now on display at the museum. He began carving the first figures for the turn-of-the-century general store diorama in 1962.
While Ward carved and built his folk art environment as a hobby for most of his adult life, he was even more prolific in painting, etching, drawing, and sculpture. A self-taught artist, he was a show painter for carnivals for over 30 years, traveling the country painting for all the major carnival shows and in winter quarters from Texas to Florida.
Always adding to his collection and creating something new, Ward never stopped working on Tinkertown, which grew from a one-room museum welcoming 943 visitors in 1983 to a roadside attraction hosting tens of thousands of visitors annually. He once said of Tinkertown, “I did all this while you were watching TV.”
Tragically, Ross Ward was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 1998, at age 57, and passed away November 13, 2002. I think the New Mexican newspaper in Santa Fe summed up his life best with this eulogy – “The late Ross J. Ward, best described as a folk artist who drank sunsets for breakfast, left behind a temple devoted to inspiration, imagination, and childhood dreams”
Today Ross Ward’s family continues his legacy by maintaining and operating Tinkertown in his memory. Something is always happening at the museum, be it a school group coming for a field trip, a busload of seniors on a tour, or just visitors like us enthralled with all that the artist created. I’m sure he would be pleased, as he always believed “The show must go on!”
We were very fortunate to meet Ross Ward’s widow, Carla, during our visit and to chat with her for a few minutes. When I admired a highly decorated old Jeep in the carport, she explained that when his illness made it unsafe for her husband to drive, he couldn’t just park it. Instead, in the best example of turning lemons into lemonade I’ve ever seen, he turned his car into yet another work of art. Could you really expect any less? I’m sorry I never got to meet Ross Ward because he was obviously a fascinating person.
The Tinkertown Museum is closed for the winter, but will reopen on April 1st, 2020, so make your travel plans now if you are a snowbird spending the winter in the Southwest. Tinkertown is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. April 1st thru October 31st and is closed during the winter. Admission is $4 for adults age 18-62, , $1.50 for kids ages 4-17 and children under age 4 are free. Seniors age 62 and older are $3.50.
Tinkertown is located in Sandia Park, just 20 minutes from Albuquerque on the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway. From Interstate 40, take Exit 175 and travel six miles north on State Highway 14, then turn left on Highway 536, the road to Sandia Crest. Tinkertown is 1.5 miles on the left. The parking lot will not accommodate RVs, so park in one of the many campgrounds in the area or in Albuquerque and drive your tow vehicle or dinghy. For more information, call (505) 281-5233 or visit their website at www.tinkertown.com
Be sure to enter our latest new Free Drawing. This week’s prize is an autographed copy of The Ghost At His Back, the first book in my friend Cameron Lowe’s Rankin Flats supernatural thriller series. Cam is a great guy, witty, intelligent, and creative. To enter, click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn Sunday evening.
Thought For The Day – Be careful who you trust. Salt and sugar look the same.