Just outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, tucked away in the Sandia Mountains, lies Tinkertown, a folk art museum full of miniature creations, coin-operated amusement machines, signs painted with funny quotes and wise remarks, license plates, bottle art, and Americana collected over a lifetime.
This roadside attraction appeals to the imagination and sense of curiosity. Its vibrancy shimmers all along a twisty, uneven, narrow path which alternates between open air and covered walkways. Items poke out of every corner, are tacked on every wall, and decorate the ceiling as well. It is all the work of the late Ross Ward.
Ward hailed from Aberdeen, South Dakota, and his penchant for creating miniature towns started in childhood. As he explained in the pamphlet, The Tinkertown Story, Or: Live Life as the Pursuit of Happiness, he had a life-changing visit to Knott’s Berry Farm in 1949. The Old West theme of the park resonated for Ward, who for years had taken in Saturday matinee westerns at a theater back home. He filled up his back porch with his own western town consisting of cardboard boxes, hand-drawn posters, Lincoln log camps, and people and buffaloes made of clay. One summer, he and his friend built a larger town in the friend’s dirt backyard.
“We went scrounging in the alleyways behind the stores in my old home-town and found all our building materials,” Ward wrote. “We didn’t know we were involved in found object art or recylcling in those days. We weren’t ahead of our time, we just did it that way because we didn’t have any money!”
Ward’s thirst for knowledge and interest in the past led him to spend many hours in the library. After high school, he worked for a roadside attraction in the Black Hills. It was a ghost town in the style of the kind seen at Knotts years earlier. Ward picked up jobs painting signs, doing general handywork, and more while continuing to grow his hobby. A sequence of meeting colorful characters with similar hobbies, a stint in the Army, employment in carnivals, and other life experiences all show in Tinkertown.
In 1983, along with his second wife, Carla, Ward opened Tinkertown to the public. After Ross’s death in 2002 from Alzheimer’s, his family kept the museum going. Admission is only $6 for adults and $3 for kids. Bring quarters for the machines, and make sure to visit the gift shop. Tinkertown is located in Sandia Park, New Mexico, off Highway 536.