We Don’t Get Out Much: Tinkertown Museum

Two homebody writers venture out to explore the Tinkertown Museum, a local roadside attraction featuring 22 rooms of a collector's paradise.

“We Don’t Get Out Much” follows writers Collin Stapleton and Michael Wilson as they throw away their “would rather not” attitude and venture to peculiar attractions, bizarre locations, and uncomfortable situations.

One of the many miniatures at Tinkertown, a roadside attraction outside Santa Fe. Photo by Kate Russell

A Cashier & A Dictator Walk Into A Museum

On the eastern side of Sandia Peak in Albuquerque is one of the odder places to visit in New Mexico. Tinkertown Museum opened in 1983, their tagline says: 22 rooms, 51,000 bottles, 20 tons of rock and cement, and 30 years of art and collecting.

What Tinkertown actually is though, is a lot harder to describe.

C: It’s like a maze, you zig zag, cut back at points. . . I'm 6'6” a lot of these ceilings were like 5'10". Walking through is so disorienting. It puts you in a strange state of mind.

M: Right. From the very start you feel like you’ve entered a different dimension.

C: You're walking through twisty little areas and then all of a sudden you get hit with a Pillsbury Doughboy out of the blue, or the one room with the case of dolls that all looked like Cher. Then a room full of coin operated toys.

M: We started with very little context, we knew that one person made it, but that was about it. Outside of the things Ross Ward made, there’s his collection of toys, carnival sideshow stuff like fortune telling machines, and random collectibles.

C: A whole case of wedding toppers. . . it told fragments of thousands of stories, it’s really nostalgic. It triggers something.

M: The core of Tinkertown is the original wooden diorama that Ross Ward made. It’s an intricate room-sized diorama of a town. He expanded from there. It seemed like everything that he collected has a tie to small town America from a certain time period. It feels like someone telling a story while drunk or forgetting half of it. A not quite real version of the past. What was your favorite thing?

The fortune teller at Tinkertown doles out futures, some good, some less good. It's the luck of the draw. Photo by Kate Russell

C: I really loved getting to do the old coin operated fortune teller. It's such an iconic thing. It gave me the most brutal fortune though; it pretty much insulted my character in a really long-winded way. It was two paragraphs!

M: I think my favorite thing was the very first thing we saw. A large animatronic band on the front porch of a barn; you put the coin in and they sing this bluegrass song and it's a dude with a ukulele and a little jug. There's a window at the top  and a woman leans out and shakes her fist at them.

C: A full 5 minutes of this ridiculous audio assault.

M: It immediately made me feel like a kid. Suddenly, it felt like I was. . . Oh, I am a kid at a fun fair!

C: There was also that machine that tells you the job you should have. I got dictator, which doesn’t seem like an occupation but you know. . . you got cashier.

M: You get a country and I get a cash register; I tried not to take it personally.

The entrance to Tinkertown, a roadside attraction outside of Santa Fe in the Sandias is almost as scenic as the inside. Photo by Kate Russell

The House That Ross Built

Started in the 1960s, Ross Ward hand-carved the original Tinkertown diorama and toured it at carnivals and sideshows. Back at home, he began to build onto his house with glass bottles. By 1983 the house had evolved into a DIY experiment; Ross decided to stop touring and turn Tinkertown into a full-time museum.

M: There was a school group so Ross’ wife Carla eventually ushered us to a low door a few yards from the main entrance of the museum. She said this wasn’t something that most people got to see. I wasn’t sure what we were getting into.

C: It was the old family home. We got to see his old studio, which had one of those things where you put someone in the cabinet and then slide the sections, cutting them in three. It was just in the middle of that room. *Googles* They’re called Zig-Zag Girls, apparently.

M: There was an unfinished painting on an easel by the window. I guess it makes sense, but Ross' art kinda reminds me of the underground comics of the ‘60s, like R. Crumb. The dioramas in the museum have a similar feeling.

C: It must have been weird being a kid growing up literally inside someone’s art, it would be like living in someone else's brain. It felt like the house at Meow Wolf Santa Fe in a lot of ways.

M: Ross started building Tinkertown in the ‘70s and didn't stop until his death in 2002. He never stopped. That kind of obsession feels outside the mainstream, I think putting him in line with “outsider” artists like Henry Darger also makes sense.

C: It's as cute and playful as it is creepy. I'm pretty sure I said several times that this would be the perfect place to film a horror movie. Puppet Master meets Goosebumps. Like at any minute these things will come to life. . .

Carla Ward is the caretaker of Tinkertown Museum which is a magical tourist attraction and her home. Photo by Kate Russell.

M: So, Carla has cared for Tinkertown since Ross’ death 2002, but she got involved in the late ‘70s.

C: A nicer lady there is not.

M: I don't want to call her out or anything but she was wearing blue Crocs and sweatpants, and a sweatshirt. It was cold that day, but she looked so comfortable and inviting. It was like coming home.

C: The clouds were really low and it's really mountainous and forested. It felt very Pacific northwest. Even where it is feels magical.

M: Ross died of Alzheimer's in 2002 and Carla has taken on his life’s work, she said that they haven’t added since then.

C: What could you add? Every square inch in the place is just packed to the max. It's just someone's passion. Ross wasn’t interested in stopping to ask permission. Now, it's 22 rooms to get lost in.

M: She's the caretaker of Ross' legacy. When we asked her what her favorite part was. . .

C: I think she said it was the outside. And the hummingbirds. There were tons of them.

Tinkertown is a feast for the eyes and an all you can eat buffet for anyone into figurines, miniatures, dioramas, and memorabilia. Photo by Kate Russell

Vanishing Americana

Tinkertown is a roadside attraction. It follows in the legacy of things like largest ball of string or The Thing in eastern Arizona. These attractions are often a cheap ticket, along older, desolate stretches of highways, and are rapidly vanishing.

M: Roadside attractions, world's largest ball of string, places like Tinkertown. . . places like House on the Rock in Wisconsin. . . seem to have similar stories, someone starts building and just keeps going. They're vanishing, or I feel like we aren't making new ones.

C: Right. I think it's sort of entertainment in general, the roadside attraction, it was people making their own fun, instead of playing apps.

Who needs apps when you can marvel at these tiny containers of popcorn for hours? Photo by Kate Russell.

M: I know a lot of people still go on road trips, but more people did trips where they went to multiple places. . . now you go on a road trip to Disney and that’s it. That's the trip. But when car travel first became cheap and easy for everyone, once the highway system was fully in place, I think people just went on trips. You stop at a place like Tinkertown and spend the night at the hotel across the street. The next day you drive to Yellowstone.

C: Yeah, you hit some national parks, roadside attractions. . .

M: It feels like because we've been making highways bigger–

C: And they're designed to bypass towns. You'd spend several weeks driving across a portion of the United States. Now, people do it in a 15-hour Redbull-fueled mess.

M: Maybe this is about using our phones instead of a printed map.

C: Totally. I think the last time I drove to Oregon, we used an atlas. This would have been like, 2005 so just in that switching period to phones. I think the next year I had a phone with Google Maps on it.

M: And if you're in a car with someone and there's a map in front of you, it shows you the stuff around you. Now, you just turn on the phone and listen to a book on tape and don't look down until you arrive.

C: As far as I'm concerned the world is just like an abstract thing that I don't know, that my phone is telling me about.

M: I realize that I don't pay attention to signs at all. I just wait until the nice voice in my phone tells me to turn.

C: I'm the same. Even for stuff in the town that I've lived in for like 25 years.

Bottles adorn the walls and create spaces in Tinkertown, reclaiming the imagination space of tech-weary travelers. Photo by Kate Russell

Go To There

M: Tinkertown, they get about 30,000 people each year to come to this tiny place in the middle of nowhere. It's amazing that 30,000 people go there.

C: Which is a lot of people.

M: It's open April 1st to October 31st. It's not even a long season. It's open 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. every day. It only costs $3.75. She said that if people paid more they'd expect bathrooms

C: She said, "We keep the price low so the expectations are low.” This place goes way over expectations once you get in there. For me, it was this tangible nostalgia that you get to put your hands on and interact with.

M: But not in the same way that things like Stranger Things. . . t's a different type of nostalgia. We're in this time of everything being recycled and rebooted and that's a specific kind of nostalgia that just doesn’t do anything for me.

Tinkertown genuinely made me feel like a kid
Meow Wolf writers Michael Wilson and Collin Stapleton who don't get out much visit Tinkertown Museum and wrote about it. Like all curious travelers, they are rewarded for their efforts. Photo by Kate Russell

C: Totally, it doesn't bring back actual memories of anything like a lot of this ‘80s genre resurgence. It's a feeling, a feeling that you know well but haven’t had in a long time. It's literal magic.

Tinkertown Museum is open 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. every day April 1 - October 31.

Read Leaving Tinkertown, a memoir by Tanya Ward Goodman about growing up in Tinkertown and her father’s illness. Available from the University of New Mexico Press.

Listen to a Spotify playlist Collin and Michael made based on Ross Ward’s favorite music.