Freed from more academic definitions, the term “urban archeology” refers to the pastime of researching, discovering and chronicling a city’s not-so-ancient history. For fans of pop culture, abandoned drive-ins, old industrial sites and crumbling roadside attractions can hold as much allure as any surviving remnant of Roman aqueduct. Simply hunting down and snapping photos of the storefront that used to house your favorite childhood video arcade can bring a comforting sense of nostalgia, painting a vivid picture of your hometown’s evolution.
Dig through old newspaper articles, thumb through outdated phone books or pick up decaying matchbook covers at an antique shop and you’ll find all manner of forgotten locations just begging to be rediscovered on Google Maps. Urban real estate comes at a premium, though, and many of these sites have been bulldozed, paved over and turned into Starbucks. But fragments of them still remain, sticking out of weed-choked lots, hiding in forgotten back alleys, lurking under several layers of paint just down the street. Follow the jogging path out behind Loma Linda Community Center on Yale and you’ll find yourself standing amid the curved tarmac remains of the long-gone Cactus Drive-In, the first drive-in theater in the state. Stand in the parking lot behind the El Rey Theater on Seventh and Gold, look down at the sidewalk and you’ll spot a plaque marking the location of the first synagogue in Albuquerque.
Head out East Central, just beyond Tramway and about four blocks past the Four Hills Shopping Center and you might notice a tiny sign on the south side of the road for the Route 66 Open Space. Only recently added to the city’s Open Space areas, the chunk of desert is available to all for hiking and … well, not much more. There isn’t even a parking lot. Just a metal gate beside the road. You can circle a small trail, look for lizards, dip down into the adjacent Tijeras Arroyo for some shade. But to those with a knowledge of our city’s history, Route 66 Open Space hides an interesting secret. Nestled amid the low bushes and gnarled trees are a number of concrete platforms and collapsed walls. These seemingly meaningless bits of detritus are actually the foundations of Little Beaver Town.
Little Beaver Town was opened in July of 1961. The ambitious Old West theme park was intended to be “The Disneyland of the Southwest.” Little Beaver Town was the picture postcard dream of cartoonist Fred Harman. Harman was the co-creator and artist of the Red Ryder newspaper strip. Wildly popular from its inception in 1938, the strip inspired comic books, a radio show, 27 feature films and a 12-chapter movie serial. The character is perhaps best remembered now as igniting young Ralphie Parker’s lust for “an official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range-model air rifle” in A Christmas Story. Little Beaver was cowboy hero Red Ryder’s cherubic Native America sidekick.
Half of Little Beaver Town featured an “Indian village,” complete with teepees, adobe buildings and souvenir shops. The other half consisted of an Old West main street. A miniature railroad train ran between the two. Gunfighters had hourly shoot-outs in front of the saloon. Fred Harmon—who grew up in Pagosa Springs, Colo., but spent his later years in Albuquerque—sold original drawing out of his on-site art gallery.
Even by the early-’60s, this quaint depiction of “cowboys and Indians” was more or less outdated. But the site did employ a number of local Native American artists and performers. Alongside the usual rubber tomahawks were some authentic Navajo arts and crafts. And a lot of traditional Native dances were showcased on the park’s central dance stage. So tourists were occasionally exposed to some actual Indigenous culture.
Unfortunately, the Red Ryder comic strip rode off into the sunset, ceasing publishing in 1965. Little Beaver Town closed its swinging saloon doors a few months earlier in 1964 having failed to become a major tourist destination. Harman lived out his retirement as a fine art painter and founded The Cowboy Artists of America. For the next 60 years, Little Beaver Town slowly disintegrated back into the New Mexico desert.
Visit the site today and you have to look to find the remnants. At first you might spot a few bits of tile, a sun-parched fragment of Formica lying in the dirt. Tangled in the roots of a squat juniper tree, you might see a nugget of porcelain off a toilet or sink, now worn smooth like beach glass. In the center of the Open Space, there is a low hillock. Circle around it, and you’ll notice a set of stairs leading to a wide concrete plaza, now cracked with age. Just north of there are the remnants of the Indian village. Chunks of crumbling concrete embedded in rusty lengths of chicken wire demarcate rough square shapes in the dust—the “adobe” buildings of Fred Harman’s long-faded dream. Take a photo. Look around at the bright horizon bending down the canyon into Albuquerque. And try to conjure up the happy yelps of young children in cowboy hats and Indian headdresses on that hot day in July of 1961.