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Million Dollar Museum, White's City.
Million Dollar Museum, White's City

Million Dollar Museum (Gone)

Field review by the editors.

Whites City, New Mexico

The Million Dollar Museum, neatly preserved underneath White's City in the desert of Southern New Mexico, has the feel of something that has been in suspended animation for the last forty years. Indeed, it shares a problem with its fellow refugee from the past, Austin Powers' Dr. Evil.

"The MILLION DOLLAR Museum!" no longer has the ring it had back when America was still on the gold standard.

White's City is a mini-mecca at the junction of US 62/180 and NM 7, the turn off for Carlsbad Caverns. It dates from 1927, when Charlie White, in New Mexico to cure his tuberculosis, grabbed 320 acres at the mouth of the Canyon leading to the Caverns. Since then, everyone going to the caves has had to pass by. The place prospered, and White's City became the place for people to stay the night and gas up their cars.


Today, thirty or so billboards still announce the imminent appearance of White's City. When you get there, in addition to a water park, motel and RV park, there is the Velvet Garter Saloon, Granny's Opera House, a general store and a gift shop. And the entrance to The Million Dollar Museum.

On the ground floor, stuffed game heads hover over video games that might be older than the animals. There is a novelty coin-operated electric chair, and a "Men Only Peep Show." Then you descend into the museum, a basement maze of eleven rooms that snakes under the White's City complex. Some 50,000 items are displayed. But even the cashier admits the place could use with a good dusting.

Room of longhorns.

It starts off much like any small town historical museum, with rusty gadgets and daily items from the boring life of a hundred years ago: old branding irons and barbed wire collections. But they might have been new when first put on display, its hard to tell.

We try and do the million dollar math in our head as we progress, but the value is certainly not in the room of busted typewriters or the glass case full of unidentified keys. Several of the cases have cracked glass held together with scotch tape. One case shows off the "three steps to the modern vacuum cleaner," though we suspect that there have been more steps taken since originally presented. Painted arrows on the floor lead us onward.

Coins in water damaged mounts hang on a wall, and nearby is one of the first folding beds, though it is now rusted to the point where it may not unfold. Here's a very small "17th century bath tub type used by Napoleon." One bed of some historic or antique nature is made with an old bedspread, but there is a big pile of well-marbled gack atop it.

Cattle Drive.

Then you start coming to items that the museum is especially proud of, at least according to the billboards: "Whittling Cowboy's Ranch," an elaborate carved miniature tableau, and the collection of European Dollhouses. One room is taken up with a hundred mounted longhorn horns behind a metal link fence.

With video game noises and the creaking of floorboards above us, and the scratchings of unidentified animals in its walls, we're getting the picture, and hustle into and out of the middle rooms. Then it starts getting good.

Two-headed snake.
Two-headed snake.

We see a two-headed turtle in a jar with a rusted lid. "Died December 10, 1971." Then a two-headed snake. And a case of Mammoth Tusks at least starts the million dollar meter running. There are two vintage photos of "the severed arm of John Ketchum." Black Jack Ketchum was "the last of the train robbers, and the swarthy bandit was wounded in his last robbery and hanged in 1901."

In one tall display case, four skulls of an ancient people called "The basket makers" are seated on flat baskets, perhaps made by them. One still has mummified skin puckered around it.

There are full mummified skeletons, and the new star of the place, "Alien Baby." In 1997, during the 50th Anniversary of the Roswell Incident, a German TV crew came by and took the tour. They proclaimed that one small mummy with a detached femur might actually be an E.T. This caused quite the sensation, and management quickly changed the description from "one of a race of midget Indians" to "Alien Baby."

The Basket Makers.

According to its new label (the only Million Dollar Museum label computer printed instead of hand written), "No one is sure exactly when the museum acquired this artifact, but it does not appear to be human."

Giving partial credit for the alien baby, the million dollar value is met, and we emerge, back upstairs. Two guys outside the Museum are burning off weeds with a flame-thrower as we leave.

Linked to Carlsbad Caverns, which has seen its annual attendance drop from 800,000 in 1989 to less than 475,000 last year, White's City may not be able to spend to create a Billion Dollar Museum. As the late Charlie White's son, Jack, once said, "[Kids] have seen men in space, what do they care about some big hole in the ground."

Above ground, White's City is trying to adjust its appeal -- for example, souvenir shot glasses have been turned into scented votives (though it continues to sell postcards of the butt-naked lady painting above the Velvet Garter's bar). But we get the feeling that even if White City one day fails and is leveled, the Million Dollar Museum, safely subterranean like Carlsbad itself, will remain preserved.

Million Dollar Museum

Jct of US 62 and Hwy 7 (Carlsbad Caverns Hwy).
Closed, contents auctioned.

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