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Albuquerque’s ‘Uncle Cliff’ Dies at 97

Cliff Hammond

The man known as “Uncle Cliff” to scores of New Mexico children and adults has died.

Clifford C. Hammond was the man behind New Mexico’s largest amusement park, which bore the name Uncle Cliff’s until it became just Cliff’s Amusement Park in 1991. He died on Jan. 29 at age 97.

A memorial service will be held Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. at Temple Baptist Church, 1613 Arizona NE.

The Albuquerque park, which he started in 1959 with just a few rides and a go-cart track, grew into a local landmark — its lights visible from Interstate 25 — with 25 rides today.

He created a destination that allowed people to “kind of escape the realities of life,” said his daughter, Linda Hays, vice president of the park.

Hammond was born in 1915 on an Illinois farm. One of eight children, he grew up in poverty, never hearing of an amusement park. But trips to the county fair gave him exposure to a carousel, music and other sideshow attractions, according to a 1986 Albuquerque Tribune article.

“Us farm boys didn’t know what an amusement park was,” he told the Tribune. “My dad would give us boys each a quarter to go to the Clark County Fair.”

After graduating from high school, he hoboed around the country for six months, before joining the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933, a New Deal program to get Americans back to work during the Depression. He worked on soil erosion projects in Illinois and Michigan, and his story was featured on the PBS series, “The American Experience.”

In 1941, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was trained as an air traffic controller. After getting married to Zella Mae Ferguson, he returned to Illinois to try his hand at hog farming. But a hard winter of feeding the hogs through mud, ice and snow made him decide to try other pursuits — moving his family of four to Kansas to try restaurant management and Idaho to try homesteading.

In 1958, he moved to Albuquerque on his 43rd birthday to begin a career as an air traffic controller. But he came home every night with a headache, he told the Tribune, and he didn’t like working for somebody else.

So after visiting a small amusement park on the New Mexico state fairgrounds with his two children, he got the idea of starting his own park.

He opened Uncle Cliff’s Kiddieland at 7600 Lomas Blvd NE in 1959. After four summers, faced with zoning problems and neighborhood noise complaints, he briefly joined forces with Little Beaver Town in Tijeras Canyon, before finally moving the park to its current location at Osuna and San Mateo boulevards in 1963.

Although now the park is squarely in the city, at that time, the location was considered on the very edge of town.

“When we first started we were way outside of town,” Linda Hays said. “The city grew up around us.

Over the years, the park grew from 6 to 15 acres. They dropped the name “Uncle” to widen the appeal of the park to beyond kids, Hays said.

Despite the park’s name change, he was still known as Uncle Cliff, especially to those over 30 years old, his daughter said.

“Whenever they’d meet him or run into him, and they found out who he was, then they’d call him that,” Hays said. “And he loved it.”

The park is still run by subsequent generations of the Hammond family.

Hammond is survived by his wife of 70 years, Zella; two children and their spouses, four grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.

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