An Esotouric Road Trip: Tinkertown

In October, the Esotouric gang set off to enjoy four days of adventuring in northern New Mexico, in search of Mission-era adobe churches, dilapidated neon signage, hot springs, horned toads, piñon coffee, funky graveyards, folk art environments and chiles relleño. (We found everything except the horned toads, much to said lizards' relief.) This is the second of two blog posts in which we'll share some of the gems we found on our travels. Peruse our first New Mexico blog post here.

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Heading back into Albuquerque after our northerly rambles, we made a small detour into the Sandia mountains to visit the Tinkertown folk art environment, and gosh, are we glad we did. It's simply one of the most delightful and captivating places we have ever visited, so of course we took lots of photos, and even a little video, so we could share the magic with YOU!

Ross J. Ward, the genius of Tinkertown, was a South Dakota kid whose imagination was kickstarted by an early visit to the still-funky Southern California roadside attraction Knott's Berry Farm. Fascinated by its small-scale recreation of the American West, he went home and built one even smaller, with fruit box storefronts inhabited by toy Indians and settlers, some store-bought, others hand-made.

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Ross Ward grew up to become a fine traveling carnival sign painter and a passionate fan of the independent spirit of Route 66 hucksters who sold tourists a peek at something novel, cold drinks and that certain undefinable quality of magic that even the humblest roadside attraction boasts.

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He'd never stopped tinkering with tiny people and buildings to put them in, and after setting down roots in Sandia Park, his miniature constructions spread out over what would become a sprawling roadside attraction of his own creation: Tinkertown.

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In partnership with his second wife Carla, he crafted elaborate bottle walls inspired by Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village in Simi Valley, slotted restored vintage automata between his own cleverly moving creations, assembled oddball collections ranging from different varieties of barbed wire strands to a complete sailing vessel, and curated a magical maze of densely packed rooms of wonder that can keep you gasping and laughing for hours.

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Visiting Tinkertown is like falling head first into into a swirling dream landscape of 19th and early 20th century America. A hillbilly band hangs out on its front porch playing tunes for an audience of vultures, moonshiners whittle while grandma chops wood, an intricately detailed and densely-packed Western town pokes fun at every cliché of the genre, while all throughout hand-painted psychedelic wall signs dispense bits of homespun philosophy–and then the circus comes to town.

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Ross Ward was a carney by trade, a collector of old sideshow banners, a lover of show people and somebody who, through his work, knew intimately the myriad details that make up a traveling show. And they're all there in his delightful tabletop circus, from the cotton candy stand to the furry Monkey Girl, from dancing dogs to marching bands, aerialists, jugglers, tiger tamers, clowns, wagons, tents, swamis and snake handlers, each one packed with personality and just where they belong. The circus is at the center of Tinkertown's warren of glass-fronted exhibition halls, and a wonderful reward for making it to the heart of the place.

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Sadly, Ross Ward developed Alzheimer's disease in his late 50s, and died in 2002. But unlike so many folk art environments that fall into disrepair with the passing of their creator, Carla Ward keeps Tinkertown open and humming, as a tribute to her sweetheart and to the decades of creativity they shared.

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We were fortunate at the end of our tour to be able to talk with Carla about her experiences running Tinkertown and helping Ross bring his dreams to life. She even showed us through the private rooms that had been their home, still packed with Ross' surprisingly sophisticated paintings and illustrations, his reference books and drawing studio. It felt like he'd just stepped out to get a smoke, and full now with the spirit of the man and his imaginary worlds, we soon followed.

See all of Chinta Cooper's photos from our visit to Tinkertown here

And if you're ever in New Mexico, pay a visit–and tell Carla we sent you. 

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