One of the quintessential towns along the old Mother Road, Tucumcari proudly wore the neon along a 6.6-mile strip of Route 66.
And now the New Mexico Route 66 Museum (nmrt66museum.org) pays homage to those days of yore, with classic cars, gasoline memorabilia and “the largest collection of Route 66 photos,” museum board member Bob Beaulieu said of the 166-photo collection. “We call it the largest collection because no one has disputed it.”
The centerpiece of the collection is a large, exquisitely restored Tucumcari Motel neon sign that cost about $6,000 to repair, he said.
“The building has been razed, but the sign was just lying there on its side, and we managed to get it fully restored,” he said of the process, which took about three years to complete.”
It’s been a labor of love for the board to put together the collection, fellow member David Brenner said.
“What we’ve captured is the Route 66 history in New Mexico,” he said. “Route 66 being the Mother Road, the dawn of the transportation age and when the American road trip born was born. We have many artifacts from the early traveling days.”
While neon art is a specialty unto its own, The Gallery Etc. (artspacetuc.com) is a tribute to local artists struggling for recognition, co-director Lyn Rodgers said.
“We have a lot of local artists and lot of paintings, craft works, sculptures and wrought-iron creations,” she said. “It’s a beautiful gallery and one of Tucumcari’s best-kept secrets. We have cards and books and all kinds of artwork, spurs and wrought-iron candlesticks. Prices range from $5 up to $3,000.”
Mesalands Community College’s Dinosaur Museum and Natural Sciences Laboratory is a must-see in Tucumcari.
Visitors have a chance to glimpse scientists at work as large windows provide a view into the working lab as students clean and prepare bones recently dug from a field on a ranch not far from town.
A two-year paleontology program at Mesalands means the museum is well-stocked with fossilized bones. A camera connected to one of the microscopes projects images onto a screen inside the museum so visitors can see what the students are seeing.
The museum also houses an unusual augmented virtual reality sandbox created by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley. When it was installed in September, it was just the 19th in the world.
It projects a 3-D photography image of Conchas Lake and allows users to step inside and create their own reality.
Life-size dinosaurs that have been found nearby and molds bronzed so visitors can touch them also are on display.
The Tucumcari Historical Museum (cityoftucumcari.com/museum) features a cowboy room, a military room with antique guns and a big red barn with a doctor’s buggy, a chuck wagon and a covered wagon.
Set amid a garden filled with native vegetation, the museum is a relaxing place to spend some time. The grounds include a caboose that is always a hit with kids.
Indian artifacts, shards of pottery, arrowheads, rugs and vintage pictures are also a part of the experience.
Although the Tucumcari Railroad Museum (tucumcarirailroadmuseum.org) won’t open until May, it’s worth the wait, said Mike Lucero, executive director.
“We have a new display coming this summer,” he said. “We’re laying out a model railroad depicting what Tucumcari looked like in 1926, the old train depot and the old water towers as they looked back then, the stockyards. This was a big shipping point for cattle, sheep, horses, so we had some big stockyards.”
One of the highlights of the museum is a train simulator, Lucero said.
“It’s the engine compartment, so you can see where the engineer sat,” he said. “You can sit there and pretend to drive the train. It’s a good place for photo ops. The adults get just as silly as the young kids.”
The building, which is the old railroad depot, is as much of an attraction as the museum, Lucero said.
It had been abandoned and it was going to be demolished, he said.
“But a group of people got interested in this thing and wanted to save it,” Lucero said. “This was the last one (building) standing from that era. They went after it. They saved its life, and we’ve converted it to a museum.”