On my bucket list since a first enchanted glimpse on the Antiques Roadshow in 2003, Tinkertown Museum is tucked away in a canyon off the Sandia Crest Highway on the kindly east side of the Sandia Mountains. I say kindly because the east side is blanketed with conifer forests where residents of nearby Albuquerque can find recreational hiking and biking trails along with winter skiing; on the west side, massive granite walls face the desert providing daunting hang gliding and rock climbing challenges for even the most accomplished. The Sandia Peak Tram does provide an easier ascent of the west face together with vast panoramas across the Rio Grande Rift Valley and beyond.
Entering Tinkertown is like turning back time to a wildly wacky nether world of Americana, the breathtaking result of one man's passion; a joyful celebration of life - unstructured and in miniature; Monty Python in clay-mation - wonky, whimsical and silly, and all with a subtle undercurrent of social commentary.
Our magical history tour starts outside at the bottle wall; waves of green, amber and opaque white bottles, cemented together and years in the making, topped by a hodgepodge of metal - old carriage wheels, weathervanes, horseshoes and buckets - an overwrought Dali masterpiece. Found objects are everywhere; a small red wagon is buried in part of the wall, an iron bench of old train tracks is topped with three turquoise tractor seats and colourful hand-painted signs offer directions and homespun advice.
From humble beginnings in a five-room vacation cottage, the museum has morphed into a labyrinthine 24 rooms. Armed with a fist full of quarters to feed the antique arcade machines, we are serenaded by the sweet vocals of 'Rusty Wyer and his Turquoise Trail Riders' through a maze of narrow corridors cobbled together with bottles, old wormy wood and rusty metal sheets. Every niche and corner is crammed with oddities; whale jawbones, totem poles, carved wooden Indians, a pair of beaded leather gloves and kachina dolls. Painstakingly carved and animated, the western town, country store and three-ring circus are each a masterpiece of absurdity and wit. Crafty details enliven each scene; a drunken stage driver, the temperance league, Chinatown, a rattlesnake coiled in the middle of a dusty western street, Mary Poppins flying across the sky, a dissolute fiddler on the roof of the Monarch Hotel. Old-fashioned arcade machines include a fortune teller and Egyptian snake charmer, which can still be played for a quarter. There are unique collections; Buffalo Bill posters, circus memorabilia - including a suit of Big Louie's clothes from Ringling Bros. (at 8'4", then the largest man on earth) - posters, clowns, dolls, carousel horses and an unlikely collection of 132 wedding cake toppers.
All this is the result of 40 years of collecting and whittling.
Imagination piqued early in Ross Ward in the tiny prairie town of Aberdeen, South Dakota. By age 11, he'd already created his first western town out of cardboard boxes and orange crates. He saved every nickel to buy animals, tin cowboys and Indians at the local Woolworth's and Newberry's.
Ross' inspiration was the circus and the itinerant travelling sideshows of the day - some say he was a "carnie" at heart. He painted signs and sideshow backdrops, murals and carousel horses for a living and, in his spare time, he whittled and modelled in clay, collecting miniatures, antiques - indeed, just about anything - as he rambled throughout the west.
Together with his wife, Carla, they began work on the museum in 1980 and opened their doors in 1983. Sadly, Ross died in 2002 at the age of 62 but the Tinkertown tradition lives on, lovingly supervised by the Ward family.
We return to the parking lot and pause by the wooden lean-to covering a gaily-painted Jeep Cherokee. The riddle, posed to us by the young cashier in the gift shop, of how to turn a Jeep into a Lincoln, is solved: it's covered in pennies.
Admission is a bargain at $3, seniors $2.50 and children $1.
Open from March 15 to October 31, daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
For more information, visit www.tinkertown.com
MARCH 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND
MARCH 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER AND LOWER MAINLAND
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