Visit the Whimsical Tinkertown Museum on the Scenic Turquoise Trail

Children of all ages love this hobbit-like world

By Billie Frank,

Ross Ward was a genius with a dream. The realization: the delightfully unique Tinkertown Museum, which opened in 1983.  

The minute you enter the grounds and see the whimsical buildings that Ross and his wife Carla constructed from stone, over 50,000 recycled bottles and other found objects, you’ll know you’ve arrived at a special place. You may even wonder if Bilbo Baggins lives in this Tolkienesque mini-world. He doesn’t, but a lot of other quirky characters do.

Artist Ross Ward, the genius behind the small museum, was a “show painter” for major carnivals throughout the United States. His job was to paint colorful scenes on rides and fun houses. In his spare time, he was a woodcarver, a hobby he started when he was 14 years old. These carvings are the basis of the wonderland you’ll discover at the Tinkertown Museum.

Welcome to Tinkertown — Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

Getting to Tinkertown Museum is half the fun. The almost-an-hour drive from Santa Fe goes through some interesting places, including Madrid, a former ghost town. Today, the colorful hamlet – the location for the John Travolta/Tim Allen movie Wild Hogs – is an arts and crafts destination, as well as a draw for bikers riding historic Route 66.

Take the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway (NM Route 14) from Santa Fe. Just past the small town of Sandia Park, you’ll see the sign for Sandia Crest on your right. Tinkertown is a short way up the road.

The magic starts the moment you enter the rambling 22-room building. When you pay your admission, you’ll be handed a quarter. As you go through the gate, put it into the slot and the animated Rusty Wyer Turquoise Trail Riders, a four-man animated band, will break into a changing selection of country music. This is only the beginning.

Rusty Wyer and the Turquoise Trail Riders perform for your pleasure — Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

As you walk from room to room, you’ll be greeted by colorful dioramas peopled by Ross’ carvings. He created over 10,000 over a 40-year period. Some of these dioramas are animated. Push the buttons and watch the little folks go about their business in these vivid mini-worlds depicting both life in an old western town and a traveling three-ring circus.

Check out all the vintage animation machines. Pop a quarter in the slot, and see Otto the One-man Band or Esmeralda, the Fortune Teller, at work. You can even shake hands with Uncle Sam. It’s worth the price! These animated worlds are fun for children of all ages.

The Chinese came to the old west to build the railroads — Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

Tinkertown Museum is a celebration of Americana. From the US license plates that decorate the walls, every state in the Union, to a kitsch collection of bride and groom wedding cake toppers, dolls, vintage toys and antique tools, it’s all just plain fun.

On a more serious note, visitors can view the Theodore R., a 1936 British-built 35-foot cutter that Carla’s brother, Fritz Damler, spent 10 years sailing around the world on.

The "Theodore R.," a 35-foot cutter circa 1936 — Photo courtesy of Tinkertown Museum

If you’re a fan of the hit TV series Breaking Bad, Tinkertown may sound a bit familiar. The museum, open seasonally from April 1 to October 31, is mentioned in Season Five, Episode 14. The gates open at 9 a.m. and stay open until 6 p.m. The last ticket is sold at 5:30 p.m.

Admission is $3.50 for adults, $3 for ages 62 and over and $1 for ages four to 16. Kids under four years enter for free.

Ross Ward passed away in 2002, but his dream remains. His family continues his legacy, maintaining and running Tinkertown in his memory, because as this former circus man used to say, “The show must go on!”

If you’re heading down the Turquoise Trail, take a detour to Tinkertown Museum. It’s a stop that will make you smile.

Tanya's Circus will delight and amuse — Photo courtesy of Steve Collins