Ross Ward began carving figures nearly 40 years ago for a turn-of-the-century general store—the first building in a make-believe miniature town that he spent much of his life completing.
The Tinkertown Museum in Sandia Park, N.M., (pop. 700) now includes a circus, a dance hall, saloon, blacksmith shop, Boot Hill cemetery, soda fountain, hotel, and lots of people.
“It really is all Ross’ vision,” says his wife, Carla, 53. “I helped, but it’s really all him.”
The miniature displays remained works in progress until four years ago when Ross, now 61, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Carla Ward keeps her husband’s lifelong dream alive in the museum visited by 20,000 people each year. “Using Ross’ favorite adage, ‘The show must go on,’” Carla says.
Carla says the couple always loved quirky roadside attractions, so they decided to create one of their own to display her husband’s carvings.
Interested in the Old West and circuses while growing up in South Dakota, Ross began carving circus figures out of wood while in junior high school. “He was an artist from the time he was a child,” says Carla. “His mother would say she put a pencil in his hand when he was 2 years old and he started drawing. And he would laugh and say, ‘Why would any mother give a 2-year-old child a sharp pencil?’”
“Ross usually worked in sets of things and would start out making three or four heads, then make the bodies and put them together,” Carla says.
His only hurdle—until his struggle with Alzheimer’s —was finding time to create everything he had in mind. “He truly never lacked for ideas,” Carla says, “and I never once knew him to have a creative block.”
He carried his displays in a trailer across the United States to fairs and carnivals until his work became too valuable, then the couple opened Tinkertown in 1983.
In his book, Road Trip USA, author Jamie Jensen calls Tinkertown “one of the most endearing” roadside attractions on historic Route 66.
Walls made out of more than 50,000 glass bottles surround the 22-room museum. Outdoor displays include a covered wagon Ross built from old parts. Inside, the Western town stretches down a long hall and around a corner, crowded streets bustling with activity. Press a button, and carpenters begin hammering. Another button sends a blacksmith to work.
Just beyond the town, the circus is under way with wagons hauling animals, performers on high wires, tigers being tamed, vendors, and the Fat Lady cooling herself off with a fan. They have antique tools, swords and doll collections. Outside rests the Theodora R., a 35-foot wooden cutter built in 1936 in which Carla’s brother, Fritz Damler, sailed around the world from 1981 to 1991. It’s the actual boat, too, not a miniature.
Linda Bahm, associate director, University of New Mexico Art Museum, says Tinkertown is unique.
“It builds on a Western phenomenon of these kinds of museums, little places with the folk art carvings and so forth in them, and somehow it just fits into the Sandia Mountains so beautifully. So it’s a little treasure on the Turquoise Trail that you don’t expect to encounter. I think what Ross has done out there is take this tradition of small museums a step further with the quality of his work and his carvings and just his imagination. It’s quite a wonderland.”
From the Navajo silversmith working in the old town to the high-wire act at the circus to the Theodora R., Tinkertown has a common theme.
“Live your dream,” Carla says. “That’s kind of what we’re promoting here.”