On Sunday, March 21, 2021, Roland Penttila presented his research on the old-west, theme park in Albuquerque called Little Beaver Town. The program took place by live stream on the AHS Facebook page.
The idea for the theme park came from Howard H. Hull who had been a service station retail advisor and training officer for Standard Oil. As he was retiring, he thought of creating a place where both the American west and Native Americans could be honored in a family-friendly way. His idea was to create a park in Albuquerque called the First American Indian Land which was to be constructed on land located east of the city at the mouth of the Tijeras Canyon and adjacent to Route 66. He got some financial backers and started selling shares in his venture. Later, he joined forces with the artist Fred Harmon and adapted the park into his fictional characters, Red Ryder and his orphaned Native American boy, Little Beaver. When the park opened in July of 1961, the park’s name had been changed to Little Beaver Town.
Local New Mexicans were hired to portray the fictional characters. Dave Saunders was to be Red Ryder at the park and Troy Vicenti, a 13-year-old Jicarilla Apache, was to be Little Beaver. Troy was a family friend to the Harmons who lived in Pagosa Springs and had portrayed Little Beaver to Fred Harmon’s Red Ryder in parades in New Mexico and Colorado. Fred Harmon drew the Red Ryder comics and newspaper strips and lived in Albuquerque during the winter where the airport was open in order to send his drawings to New York each day.
Little Beaver Town opened with an estimated crowd of over 5,000 and seemed like it might be a huge success. There was a miniature train, a real horse-drawn stagecoach, burro rides, traditional Native dances, a saloon, photo booth and a place to purchase a Daisy Red Ryder rifle. Twice a day, the “bank” would be robbed and Red Ryder and Little Beaver would thwart the thieves in a dramatic shootout on Main Street. The west side of the park was a typical western town while the east section was devoted to Native American dances and culture. For its day, it tried to be balanced to both cultures.
However, after the initial opening, attendance continued to wane until by 1963, the site had become a modern ghost town. While it was right on Route 66, westbound travelers would have to pass it and then return. At the time, this move was not well understood, and many travelers just continued thinking they had missed it. So, it had to rely on return visitors from local folks.
Sixty years later, the site is mostly gone. But there are hints of what was there if you know where to look. The City purchased the site a few years back in order to have public access to the public open space of the Tijeras Canyon. It was only after it was purchased that the City discovered they now owned the site of the 60’s theme park.
Roland Penttila is a retired civil engineer who moved to New Mexico from California in 1998 to work on a highway project. It was his plan to finish the project and move back to California. But he met Peggy whom he married in 2003 and has lived in the Land of Entrapment now for over 20 years. After retirement in 2012, he became interested in Albuquerque’s history and is now an active member of two local organizations including the Albuquerque Historical Society. He has given free walking tours of downtown for four years. Roland is very interested in the transition to sustainable energy and drives a Tesla battery-electric vehicle. Peggy and he live in the southeast heights and have two dogs and one cat…all rescues.