Tim’s Turn: Traveling to Tinkertown
I played with wooden Tinkertoys when I was a kid. As an adult, I love to tinker around in the garage. My friend has a Tinker Toy cat. This summer, I visited Tinkertown.
Tinkertown is an attraction located at an elevation of 7,007 feet in Sandia Park, New Mexico, on the east side of Sandia Mountain. The population of Sandia Park in 2023? Only 309.
I had never heard of Tinkertown. While visiting friends in Albuquerque they attempted to describe the place as the “perfect Tim attraction.” I was quick to say, “Yes!” to a visit.
Created by a brilliant artist named Ross Ward, whimsical exhibits at the museum are housed in 22 rooms built of 55,000 glass bottles and other collected materials. Inspired by a trip to Knott’s Berry Farm, he carved and created a miniature town. With circuses and carnivals in mind, he built an expansive miniature three-ring Big Top scene, complete with a sideshow. Both are on display.
It took Ross more than 40 years to construct this unique roadside attraction, which opened to the public in 1983. By 2000, more than 30,000 visitors a year were coming to see this work of art. Did I mention that when he wasn’t carving, painting, and collecting glass bottles to build with, he was traveling the country as a show painter for carnivals and parks? He spent many years painting Flying Bobs and other attractions for Chance Rides of Wichita, Kansas.
“He was quite a guy and amazingly talented,” Dick Chance told me when asked about Ross. “He would take a brush or roller in each hand and paint at the same time. He was quite efficient and could paint an entire ride by hand, by himself, in two days.” Dick said his factory employees would hang around to watch Ross work, noting that he was the “fastest and best” freehand painter the company has ever employed.
Hand-painted signs appear throughout Tinkertown, usually in front of intricately created tableaus, explaining how he had time to create so much. “I did all this while you were watching TV,” proclaims the signs.
“It wasn’t unusual for him to have several projects going on at the same time,” his wife, Carla, told me during my visit. Ross died in 2002 at 62. Carla and her family have been running the museum since.
After enjoying the attraction, Carla invited us inside the glass bottle home that Ross built and where the family lived for years. It now serves as a guest house and a makeshift vault, stacked with Ross’s fine art paintings, showing his eclectic tastes and styles while demonstrating how prolific he was. “While traveling the country as a show painter and while creating Tinkertown, he made time to create beautiful art,” she added.
Maybe the best way to explain this one-of-a-kind museum is to share some statistics. In addition to Ross’s 1,500 hand-carved miniature figures and countless hand-painted signs, there are two truckloads of old arcade machines; three truckloads of Old West collectibles; two truckloads of road culture relics, signs, license plates, and remnants from old attractions; two truckloads of various antiques; and 400 yards of elevated boardwalk covered by 10,000 board feet of weathered wood and shingles. Add to that countless truckloads of whimsy, and you have Tinkertown.
My friends were right. It is totally my kind of place.