What do an old mining town, a folk art museum and a gas museum have in common? They’re all very unusual. If you’re visiting Santa Fe and you’re a fan of things that are a bit quirky or off centre, don’t miss these attractions. In the 3rd of our World Travel Blogger Series, Billie Frank takes us to some fascinating sights in an area she knows very well …
The first two quirky places can be combined in a single outing. Both are on the historic Turquoise Trail (NM Route 14) south of Santa Fe. The third, The Classical Gas Museum, is on the way to Taos, a popular day-trip destination for Santa Fe visitors. The picturesque Northern New Mexican town is famous as an artists’ haven, home to the Taos Pueblo and Julia Roberts and where Dennis Hopper shot his cult movie Easy Rider in 1969.
Madrid, New Mexico: Take a mostly abandoned mining town, add a bunch of hippies, artists and independent thinkers, thrown in some funky buildings rumored to have been sold for a pittance and you get Madrid. The former ghost town (pronounced MADrid) on the historic Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway south of Santa Fe, started life in the late 1800s as a coal mining town. By the mid 1950s, the mines were closed and Madrid became a virtual ghost town owned by Joe Huber, son of the former mine superintendant. In the early 1970s, Huber wanted to revitalize the town. He began by renting and selling Madrid’s buildings at really affordable prices. Artists, hippies and other counter-cultural folks were attracted by this opportunity to buy into the dream. Today, Madrid is a quirky “art” town attracting visitors from all over.
One of Madrid’s recent claims to fame ia the movie, Wild Hogs. The film, starring John Travolta and Tim Allen, was shot there in the summer of 2006. Though panned by the critics, the film put the town on tourists’ radar. Though only a single remnant of the film’s set remains, the façade for Maggie’s Diner, the town is still recognizable to the movie’s fans. But you can’t get lunch here; the spot was never a diner. Today, it’s a shop selling eclectic memorabilia including biker gear. Owner, Hugh Hackett, a transplant from Dublin, Ireland, says that since the movie, thousands of recreational bikers from all over the world come through the town each year on Route 66 tours.
Stop by Madrid’s Old Coal Mining Museum and then grab a bite to eat at the Mine Shaft Tavern next door. This funky bar/restaurant’s been around since 1895. The original building burned down Christmas Day 1944 and was rebuilt in 1947. It’s a piece of local history and famous around here. While it attracts a lot of bikers, it’s fine for the entire family. Check out the art on the walls painted by Russ Ward, the genius who created the next stop on your excursion, Tinkertown.
Madrid is on NM Route 14, about 40 minutes south of Santa Fe.
The Tinkertown Museum, south of Madrid on the Turquoise Trail, is a must see if you’re a fan of left of center when it comes to reality. The folk art museum, made up mostly of dioramas peopled by little folks going about their daily lives, is a wondrous place. “Visit” a western town, a circus, heaven and hell and more. A lot of it is animated and it’s all a lot of fun. From the moment you enter and put a quarter in the slot that brings the Rusty Wyre Band to life to the moment you leave, you’ll have a smile on your face. At least I did. Tinkertown is delightful and yes, quirky.
Artist and master carver, Russ Ward, a bit of a mad genius, started carving as a teen and never stopped. His “grown-up” job was as a bit quirky. He was a “show painter” for major carnivals throughout the United States, designing and painting the pictures you see on rides and fun houses. What a quirkilicious way to pay your bills! Ward built the museum from scratch with his wife Carla using mostly recycled materials including over 50,000 glass bottles, rocks and other found objects. The interior is filled with his work and miniatures he collected in his travels. If you have a skewed perspective on life, don’t miss Tinkertown. The museum is open seasonally from April 1st to October 31st. There is a small admission charge.
The Tinkertown Museum is on Sandia Crest Road off NM 14 is about a half-hour south of Madrid. Look for the sign for the turn on your right.
The Classical Gas Museum: There’s something about old gasoline pumps and gas station memorabilia that fascinates people. Maybe it’s the design, the vivid colors or the connection to the past, but they get people’s attention. We’ve been driving past this museum for years, always too rushed to stop. On a summer Sunday with a bit of time on our hands, we decided to check it out. Why did we wait so long?
Former Los Alamos scientist Johnnie Meier started collecting gas pumps, signs and more in the late 1980s. He opened this quirky tribute to gas station memorabilia in 1997. He has thousands of artifacts scattered all around his land and displayed in the museum building. From pumps to neon signs, to old tins and old cars, there are treasures here. He sells some of the things he’s collected to sculptors who work with recycled materials. The enterprising Meier also recycle his own stuff. He rents it out for film shoots, commercials and photo shoots.
He is currently restoring a 1950s Valentine Diner, which when finished, will be the Eat Mo’ Ice Cream Parlor. He found the diner in a local junk yard. Hours are as quirky as Johnny and his museum. If he’s there, he’s open from sun up to sundown. If you’re making a special trip to see his treasures, call ahead. After you’ve feasted your eyes at the museum, stop by Sugar’s BBQ down the road a bit for a Sugar Burger or a smoked brisket burrito. Or eat first and grab dessert at the Eat Mo’ for the perfectly sweet ending to your very quirky day.
The Classical Gas Museum is on NM Route 68 aka the Low Road to Taos in the small hamlet of Embudo about an hour from Santa Fe.
Freelance writer and former concierge Billie Frank writes extensively about Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico for her blog Santa Fe Travelers. She is co-owner of The Santa Fe Traveler, designing unique experiences for visitors to the area. You can find Billie on Facebook and on Twitter.