Looking for a place where you can see the treasures of people who have lived in the San Juan Basin for a thousand years? The Aztec Museum and Pioneer Village, along the Animas River northeast of Farmington in the heart of the Four Corners Region, is where you’ll find it.
Aztec history recounted
Even though Farmington has a much larger population, Aztec remains the county seat of San Juan County. It all has to with timing and history, which for Aztec begins in 1776.
While our Founding Fathers were busy in Philadelphia writing the Declaration of Independence and plotting insurrection against the British, two Franciscan friars, Atanosio Dominques and Velaz de Escalante, were exploring a shorter trail from Santa Fe to California. They failed in their effort but, as they passed through the San Juan Basin, they undoubtedly encountered the ruins of the Chacoan pueblo. Thinking this was an Aztec ruin, they marked it as such on their map. Farmington, at that time, was not even a thought in anyone’s mind. It wasn’t incorporated until 1901. Aztec was established in late 1887.
That was then. But how they lived and what they did isn’t lost in the distant fog of time. In 1974, the City of Aztec founded the Aztec Museum and Pioneer Village, capturing the essence of life in an early Western American community.
Aztec Museum centered in historic city hall
The museum is in the historic Aztec city hall and fire station. Its Pioneer Room contains information on early families and items they brought with them. The Lobato Room has a mineral, fossil, and rock collection, along with mining tools. There are displays of early farming and dairy equipment and a room dedicated to the Chacoan culture of the nearby Aztec ruins.
Barber collection reflects tonsorial traditions
One highlight of the museum is its historic barbershop. If you recall John Wayne in The Shootist or Kevin Costner in Wyatt Earp both being shaved by early 1900 barbers, you wouldn’t be surprised by the Aztec Museum’s barbershop. There are turn-of-the-century barber chairs, sinks, counters, and mirrors, and all the barbering tools needed for that . . . dare I say it? Shave and a haircut . . . two bits!
Cyclorama — The Old West in the round
Wisconsin-born Valenty Zaharek’s “Pecos West” cyclorama was donated to the Aztec Museum in 2014. It features more than 100 figures hand-carved from pine, redwood, burl oak, and aspen. The cyclorama measures eighteen feet in diameter and slowly rotates as old-west cowboy music plays in the background. The display includes all Zaharek’s tools.
Explore to your heart’s content
As you walk the museum and grounds, you’ll learn early pioneers brought everything with them, from bedspreads to wagons. With more than 20,000 artifacts of the period, the museum reflects the history and human activity in northwest New Mexico for more than a century. People back then do many of the things we do, like using a can opener. They just used different tools, many of which visitors may never have seen before.
A dozen buildings full of treasures
The real “fun” of this place is its pioneer village, a collection of a dozen buildings moved to Aztec from different locations in northwest New Mexico or built on site to resemble structures of the early 20th century. There are displays of period furnishings, clothing, utensils, and tools related to each of the buildings’ functions.
There’s the Old Aztec jail, magistrate’s office, post office, and general store. You can visit the tinsmith and print shop, blacksmith and carpentry shop. You can walk through Merl Pinkerton’s farmhouse, the Hamblet log cabin, a general merchandise emporium, and Citizen’s Bank housing original bank teller cages. Or find a seat at a desk in the one-room schoolhouse.
Fulfill your desire to ride the caboose
There’s even a rebuilt Denver & Rio Grande railroad wooden caboose. It was never an operating caboose, which is why it probably survived to become part of the collection. You can satisfy that desire you’ve had since you were a kid. Climb the short ladder and sit in one of two observation seats in the cupola, something no one has been able to do on a working train since the 1980s, when cabooses were replaced by FRED, flashing rear-end devices, that is.
Oil and gas made Aztec what it is
In the 1950s, wildcatters came to Farmington and Aztec in search of natural gas and oil. The men who ran these oil production companies were great risk-takers. Many were World War Two vets, and they were ready to make their fortunes. The first natural gas well was drilled in Aztec and today, as you drive through the area, you’ll see rockers slowly oscillating, lifting oil to the surface.
In the Atwood Annex, behind the old city hall and fire station, are artifacts of the oil and gas industry, including a 1920 Fort Worth Spudder Drilling Rig, one of the last remaining all-wood drill rigs used half a century ago.
The Aztec Museum and Pioneer Park is open May through October, Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for students. Preschoolers are free.
History is not always something you learn in books or listening to lectures. At the Aztec Museum and Pioneer Village, you can take a stroll through the history of the Four Corners region.