Automobiles, toys and first-hand accounts of days gone by can be a fun way of looking at our history – and Archie Lewis has plenty of all three at his Lewis Antique Auto and Toy Museum in Moriarty.
Lewis started his collection early. He bought his first car – a 1926 Ford Model T roadster – right around his ninth birthday in August 1945. He had the $40 saved up from selling the Albuquerque Journal on his paper route in Vaughn and Encino, and to railroad passengers at Vaughn’s Harvey House.
There’s more story behind that first car. Lewis saw it in Corona while he and his mother motored down the highway to deliver truck parts to his dad’s job site, which turned out to be constructing the road along which the atomic bomb would travel on its way from the railroad tracks to the Trinity Site.
The delivery was interrupted by the Military Police, who escorted Lewis, his mother and the parts to the job site.
Once at the dusty, bustling Manhattan Project base camp, Lewis and his mother had to stay there for nearly a month for national security purposes. They lived in a tent, and Lewis roamed the desert, swam in the water tank at the ranch house, and watched the bomb make its way to the tower. They were finally allowed to leave a couple of days before the test.
After returning to Vaughn, Lewis bought the car. In a delightful, full-circle kind of way, the car sits a few yards from empty spots in the lot from which vehicles were rented for the production of the “Manhattan” TV series, which is filmed in New Mexico.
That Model T is one of the 700 cars on display in the eight-acre outdoor portion of the museum along with many others in various states of disrepair. The rougher outdoor collection may not be as aesthetically pleasing to some, but it features rare specimens seldom seen elsewhere, including several Crosleys, and a 1941 halftrack from World War II.
In the 13,000-plus-square-foot showroom are a few dozen vehicles looking like they just rolled out of the factory, some a century old. Lewis has a story for each of them, and several for a 1915 Model T touring car. It has been used in numerous TV shows and movies, including “The Good Guys and the Bad Guys” with Robert Mitchum and Tina Louise.
Several movie stars have been in that ’15 Ford, and one almost paid dearly for it. Lewis says that during a scene in a movie that was never released, Ricardo Montalbán lit a match on the fender, “and boy I come unglued. In fact, I almost punched him out. They stopped (filming).”
The showroom also houses numerous toys of varying vintage, jukeboxes, barber chairs, and a scattering of other interesting artifacts. Lewis purchased one of the toys at the Woolworth’s on Central in Albuquerque around 1941. Every object tells a story or evokes a memory.
Lewis opened the museum officially in 2004 after moving from Albuquerque, although he was open to visitors during the nine months it took to move the cars two at a time from his old location, Lewis Antique Auto Parts.
Some of the cars in Lewis’ collection have come and gone, and come again. For instance, a 1941 Nash is in his possession for a third time. And Lewis once bought a car from a 17-year-old kid, who bought it back nearly 40 years later and finished the restoration Lewis started.
The museum’s guest book is signed by people from all over the U.S., and boasts visitors from as far away as Japan, Switzerland and South Africa. One recent guest is a member of automobile royalty: the son of Carroll Shelby of Shelby Cobra fame.
Visitors are appreciative of the cars, even the rusty ones outside. “You know I’ve had people in tears sayin’ it took ’em back to when they were young,” Lewis says. “There was a lady in here the other day and she come in here and the tears was runnin’ out of her eyes and I said ‘What happened? You fall down or what?’ and she said ‘No, I seen that ’51 Kaiser. That brought back so many memories, I just broke down.'” Playfully, Lewis adds, “I don’t know why she’d have memories of a ’51 Kaiser, they’re ugly cars.”
The thrill of the hunt and the sport of haggling have occupied Lewis since he was a kid. “I was always horse trading with somebody,” he says.
Lewis has done a lot over the years to earn a living. He was a mechanic, welder, trader, gold and uranium prospector, and once ran a service station in Gila Bend, Ariz., where he regularly sold gas to Iwo Jima veteran Ira Hayes. But having his collection and museum has been the most enjoyable.
Talking to visitors, working the museum with his partner of 17 years, Beth Alexander, or just roaming his collection with his faithful dog Levi brings him satisfaction, he says. “I enjoy my own stuff. I can go out back there and spend all day … It’s fun.”