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Tinkertown: An animatronic, handmade maker wonderland

Crave's Nerdy New Mexico series explores the maker side of the state at Tinkertown, a folk art paradise full of animated miniatures and old amusement park machines.

Mummy's Tomb
The Mummy's Tomb is a vintage arcade machine with a snake charmer and moving mummy.
Amanda Kooser/CNET

SANDIA PARK, N.M.--It's a good idea to raid your piggy bank for quarters before you go to Tinkertown. You'll need them to trigger the fortune teller machine, play the automated one-man band, and turn on some of the homemade animatronic displays.

Ross Ward's legacy
Tinkertown is a testament to the vision, determination, and craftiness of tinkerer Ross Ward, a carnival painter who spent 40 years of his life carving figures and building miniature towns and circuses for them to live in.

One highlight of a Tinkertown visit is the Old West town. It spans a long room. Buttons along the way trigger a figure that chases a chicken, a flying Mary Poppins, and carpenters hammering away. Most of it is hand-built and hand-carved, with layers upon layers of tiny Western details recreated in miniature.

The result of all that work and creativity is Tinkertown. Tucked away in the Sandia Mountains, Tinkertown pulls in thousands of visitors every year. Ward passed away in 2002, but his widow and partner-in-tinkering Carla Ward still runs the place.

WD-40 and duct tape
Carla is now the one responsible for keeping all the old animatronics running. "I maintain everything. There's replacing motors and putting baling wire pieces back together. Duct tape is helpful, and WD-40," she says.

Tinkertown is stocked with everything from a boat that sailed around the world to a hand-carved miniature circus and an amusement park machine with a moving snake charmer from England.

All the disparate displays still manage to be cohesive in the big picture of Tinkertown. "Once you have a place to put things, it's amazing what comes to you and what you can find," Carla says. "Ross was really good at finding interesting things. He would bring home all kinds of stuff."

Retro amusement park distractions
The vintage amusement park entertainment machines are an endless source of fascination.

There's a grandmother fortune teller that looks related to the wish-granting machine from "Big." She spits out a fortune on a card that tells me, "Despair not, I say, for your days of despair will soon be over."

I test out a machine with a heavy silver wheel that promises to hook me up with my dream career. It turns out I'm destined to be a "hot air artist." That sounds like an apt description for a journalist.

Otto, the automatic one-man band, is a hulking machine filled with instruments. It plays jaunty tunes all by itself at the drop of a quarter.

In the pantheon of makers, Ross and Carla Ward deserve their own circle of heaven. Tinkertown manages to be retro, folky, kitschy, and fascinating all in one go. This is what happens when imagination and tinkering hearts are given room to roam.

Carla Ward
Tinkertown owner Carla Ward stands in front of some of the 50,000 bottles built into the walls. Amanda Kooser/CNET