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A ‘wheel’ bonanza

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

A recent gift of antique toys to Albuquerque’s Wheels Museum underscores the old adage, “They don’t make ’em like they used to.”

The gift of about 500 pieces, most in remarkably good condition, are primarily made from cast iron and tin, and date back to the early 1900s and before the turn of the century, said museum president Leba Freed.

“We have been fortunate in that everything in the museum has been donated, but never have we gotten such a rare collection as this one of toys,” she said.

The collection has been conservatively estimated to have a value of about $40,000, though the museum has not had a formal appraisal done.

The gift of toys came from a former Albuquerque resident named Jack Murdoch, who retired to Florida and more recently moved into a retirement facility there. Unable to take the toy collection with him because of space limitations, Murdoch arranged to donate and ship the pieces to the Wheels Museum, Freed said. They arrived in boxes weighing more than 1,000 pounds in all, and museum staff are still sorting through the pieces and trying to determine where and how to display them.

Some of them, however, have already been put out and are prominently displayed in a glass case.

Among those items are horse-drawn fire- and ladder-trucks; a circus cart with a caged polar bear; a long mercantile wagon, predecessor to the flat bed commercial truck, loaded with tobacco and barrels; and a surry with a raised top made from fabric with hanging fringes around the edges.

History of moving

Many of the donated toys are model locomotives and rolling stock of various gauges that will be incorporated into existing train layouts set up in the museum. It is a gift particularly appropriate for the Wheels Museum, which is set up in the old 21,000 square foot Storehouse building on the site of the historic Santa Fe Railroad yards in Downtown Albuquerque. Built in 1914, the building at one time contained an inventory of more than 30,000 railroad parts and was later used as a depot for motor freight, Freed said.

Today, the building houses thousands of artifacts, many of them related to the operation of the railroad, but also items that help chronicle the history of all things that move.

Wheels, said Freed, is an acronym for We Have Everything Everyone Loves Spinning.

“So it’s about progress of society through moving, whether in an automobile or an ox cart or a bicycle or a train. It’s about preserving the history of transportation and saving this site for future generations, saving the culture and helping the economic development of the city,” Freed said.

In the early 1990s Freed came up with the idea of saving the Santa Fe Railroad yard and creating the museum. As a result of mergers, the rail yard at the time was owned by the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway, also called BNSF Railway.

“It went through the hands of several developers,” she said, but in 2007 then-Mayor Martin Chavez helped put together a package of funding from the city and state, allowing Albuquerque to purchase the property for $8.5 million.

Prominent on the 27 acres is the five-story-tall Machine Shop building “where 40 locomotives each month were repaired and serviced for decades,” Freed said, and which contains 166,000 square feet on the ground and glass on enormous portions of the north and south walls. Other buildings include the Boiler Shop, the Blacksmith Shop, the Storehouse and more, for a total of about 1 million square feet of indoor space, Freed said. A Roundhouse building was previously torn down, but the turntable that the building surrounded remains.

Photos, artifacts

As wheels go, there are plenty to see at the Wheels Museum. Visitors can look upon an old horse-drawn dairy cart from about 1910 that belonged to Albuquerque’s Bezenek Dairy and features its three-digit phone number. There is a 1915 Ford Model T, a 1919 Republic truck and a 1923 Star automobile that was found buried in the sand up to the edge of its windshield in Palm Springs, Calif., and later dug out by two prospectors.

A number of World War II-era vehicles are represented by a 1942 Seagraves fire truck, a mid-40s all-wheel-drive Dodge power wagon, and a military-type Jeep. There are antique bicycles, art cars made by University of New Mexico fine arts students, an articulated wooden horse from an amusement park and a 1950s ice cream push cart.

Scattered about the museum are archival photos and artifacts, many, though not all, related to New Mexico’s time as a hub of the railroad industry. The museum also contains a library and a gift shop.

The Wheels Museum is run completely by volunteers, and operational costs are paid for by visitor donations and fundraisers. Freed said the museum is looking to raise $500,000 to rehab the old building, which currently has neither heating nor cooling systems.

“Nobody gets paid, including me, so obviously we’re doing this for a greater good,” Freed said. “We’re doing this because we believe the preservation of the items in the museum and their history are too important to be lost.”

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