Don’t Stop Playing
My first view of the Tinkertown Museum from the parking lot should have prepared me for what I’d see inside. It didn’t. What I saw was a red shingled roof behind a rustic wood fence built from indigenous tree branches held together with bailing wire and a wall of bottles set in concrete, old wagon wheels standing casually on the ground inside the fence and stacked haphazardly atop one another high above the museum’s roof. In addition to several metal weather vanes attached to the wheels, a redheaded turkey buzzard was perched on one of big wheels looking down menacingly at the odd collection. That first view should have confirmed that this is not the usual museum.
The red boardwalk leading to the Tinkertown Museum entrance is covered by a red metal roof and runs along a wall of bottles set in concrete on one side and rock and cement supports on the other side. I later learned that the wall of bottles at the entrance is just one section of a bottle fence that includes over 50,000 bottles.
I was in a constant state of awe and wonder as I roamed through the 400 yards of winding halls chock full of hand carved and painted miniature figures, old-fashioned arcade machines, vintage tin product signs, an array of old west paraphernalia, handmade and hand painted signs with sage and sometimes humorous quotes, and scores of other items that I had long forgotten. But Ross Ward’s eclectic collection goes a long way toward helping me remember.
On the wall just inside the museum I passed “Otto, the Great Automated One-Man Band”, one of several arcade games tucked into niches around the museum that will play music or tell your fortune for a quarter. Just beyond Otto I saw a huge world map with a green note that asks “Where are you from?” then directs visitors to get a push pin from the gift shop. Except for America’s heartland, there is hardly any space left on the USA section of the map for my pin. I scanned the map to see that the museum’s visitors come every continent and many distant countries including the Philippines, Papau New Guinea, New Zealand, China, Madagascar, Argentina, Greenland, and Franz Josef Land (an archipelago of 191 islands in the Arctic Ocean far north of the Russian Federation).
Just beyond the map is one of scores of signs posted throughout the museum that, perhaps, attempts to explain why anyone would open a museum with such an odd and intriguing collection. I walked toward a long wall of glass and found a complete miniature western town main street that includes a two story hotel with a balcony, a saloon, barber shop, laundry, blacksmith shop, and ice cream parlor, a general store with carved miniatures of a bathtub, water pitcher, washboard with tin ribs, itsy-bitsy porcelain, clay and carved Anglo figures, and horses pulling a water wagon. Further along in the town is a fully supplied Native American market, oxens pulling a cart with more merchandise, Mexicans wearing sarapes and sombreros, and a toy store with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves taking in the action along Main Street. Ward began carving the early town of western domesticity display in 1962 and continued to add to it for many years.
Nearby is a three ring circus with miniature clowns, acrobats, a juggler, a bouquet of balloons in primary colors, an elephant rolling a brightly colored drum, tigers in a cage, a team of six horses pulling an intricately carved wagon, and even a Fat Lady fanning herself.
The museum displays all kinds of wacky memorabilia including one display of Snow White and Elvis Presley standing beside a juke box with Snow White saying “Send the Prince back home. I’m with the King!” Another display, “Dreamers in Paradise” shows several carved or porcelain female figures reclining in small white wicker chairs with a sign that says “Teachers on vacation.”
Perhaps one of the most unique displays includes dozens of wedding cake figurines collected from nearly every state. A hand written note above a couple on the top shelf near the middle of the display identifies it as the first one in the collection. It was made in the 1920s and used in 1981 on Ross and Carla’s own wedding cake. Another display shows a collection of drug store and beauty parlor jars and restaurant bottles retrieved from the dump site used from the 1920s to the 1950s by the La Fonda Hotel, one of Santa Fe’s oldest and grandest hotels.
Nailed to the walls and ceiling throughout the museum are several Route 66 road signs, vintage tin signs advertising smoking tobacco, animal feed products, and various medicinal remedies, and old license plates from all over the USA. The museum also includes scores of inspirational hand painted signs that seem to capture Ross’ free spirit.
Perhaps one of the most telling examples of how Ross Ward lived his life is depicted in the Port of Tinkertown. After crossing a creaky ramp into another wing of the museum, I found, not another diminutive display, but a full size Theodora R, a 35 foot 1936 English built sailboat, and a nearly ten foot long map that details the voyage of Fritz Damler, the Theodora R’s captain and Carla Ross’ brother.
After hearing the call of “universal freedom”, Fritz quit his job and traded his house for the boat. His journey began in Fort Lauderdale, FL in December 1981 and ended in Mobile, AL in April, 1991. A hand drawn map shows Fritz’s route that included stops in the South Pacific and Caribbean islands, Africa, Europe, and Australia. Brief notes on the map provide some of Fritz’s adventures during the voyage such as the seeing the biggest wave near the Panama Canal, falling overboard in the South Pacific and again between Cairns and Sydney, surviving a shark attack in Vanuatu, a volcanic island chain in the southwest Pacific Ocean between Fiji and New Caledonia (his favorite place), and a near collision with a ship off the coast of New Guinea. During his journey, Fritz sometimes sailed alone and sometime others joined him, including Carla. At the end of the brief description of Fritz’s journey is a quote that says “Life is short, follow your heart.”
Before leaving the Tinkertown Museum, I took a stroll through Buzzard Gulch, Ross & Carla Ward’s Ghost Town. As I walked under the “Live Life as a Pursuit of Happiness” gateway, I was taken back to the days when I watched Gunsmoke, Wagon Train and other TV westerns. Included in the collection is a weathered chuck wagon loaded with rusting cooking utensils and other trail necessities, a western buggy, an 1890s Wicker Pony cart from upstate New York, a 1906 hand drawn fire brigade hose cart, a collection of dusty saddles, rusting horseshoes and various other items gathering from around the west.
Even though the three ring circus, arcade machines, other creative eccentricities and the Buzzard Gulch western collection took me back many, many years, the most touching exhibit in the entire museum was Ross Ward’s Art Car. After his Alzheimer’s symptoms made it unsafe for him to drive, Carla recommended that he undertake the art project. The 1989 Jeep Cherokee is hand painted with florid designs and inlaid coins, seashells, and pebbles. On the dashboard and on top of the vehicle, Ross included tiny Sesame Street and Star Wars characters, prehistoric animals, and other characters and figurines. It was one of Ward’s last projects. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at the early age of 57 and died five years later.
As a youngster, Ross J. Ward loved western movies. After a visit to Knott’s Berry Farm in California, he took his first steps toward building on the back porch of his South Dakota home what he had seen on the big screen and then on the California trip. He began his artistic career by using cardboard boxes and Lincoln Logs as building materials and modeling clay to create miniature people and animals. As a roving artist, he progressed to painting carnival murals and show signs. Most artists with these meager beginnings would be forever relegated to the band of unknown artists regardless of their personal talents. Not Ross Ward. Ross honed his artistic skills and, along with his love of carving and collecting, parlayed them into a one-of-a-kind museum of Americana in miniature that is fascinating for both adults and children.
Ross began carving and painting miniature circus figures as a child and pursued his passion for more than 40 years. In his spare time as a traveling painter of circus and carnival art that included massive murals, show fronts, signs, fun houses, and merry-go-round horses, he continued to carve and began collecting a variety of antique artifacts as he traveled all over the United States and to Australia and Central America. He eventually amassed a collection of more than 1500 carved and painted miniature figures. He also loved to paint familiar southwestern scenes such as the ones in The Mine Shaft Tavern in Madrid, NM, a few miles north on the Turquoise Trail.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, Ross set up his miniature towns at county fairs and carnivals then broke them down at the end of the event. When his collection became too big for the touring carnival display, Ross chose to permanently display it in what began as a five room cabin in the Sandia Mountains and grew into today’s 24 room museum.
The Tinkertown Museum is brimming with Ross and Carla Ward’s passionate pursuit of living life to its fullest. At the end of my tour, I stopped by the museum entrance to tell Carla, Ross’ widow and current owner of the Museum, how much I enjoyed my visit and to express my appreciation for all that she and Ross had collected over the years. She was obviously very proud of the museum and talked to me about what a brilliant man Ross was. She spoke lovingly of the times when she lugged tons of rocks and bags of cement while she and Ross built the bottle fence.
Carla even took me into her private quarters to show off some of Ross’ paintings, pencil drawings and sculptures. Quick to smile, she has a very warm, inviting personality that makes her easy to talk to. When I asked what were the oldest and newest pieces in the collection, she thought for a couple of seconds, then said that one of the oldest pieces was the 1920’s wedding cake couple used on her and Ross’ 1981 wedding cake and the newest item, not yet on display, will be an iPhone. She says she still loves running the museum with the help of family members and has no immediate plans to stop. But, she said, she doesn’t see herself selling museum tickets forever.
I spent nearly two delightful hours at the Tinkertown Museum and could have spent another two hours there basking in a long ago era. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I took a final look back at Ross Ward’s play house and one-of-a-kind museum that enabled him to stay forever young.
If you go
To truly appreciate the Tinkertown Museum, you should allow an absolute minimum of one hour. The last admission tickets of the day are sold at 5:30 PM.
Directions - The Tinkertown Museum, about 20 minutes from Albuquerque, is located on the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway. Take Exit 175 North off I-40. From I-40, take Highway 14 for six miles then turn left onto Highway 536. The Museum is 1.5 miles on the left.
Every day 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM
April 1st - November 1st
Admission - $3.00 for Adults
$2.50 for seniors (aged 64 +)
$1.00 for children aged 4 – 16