I Found An New Old Drive-In

1954 aerial photo of the County Drive-InOne of my current projects involves drive-in theater history, and I just couldn’t find the location of the first one in Tucumcari NM. Let me tell you about the steps that led me to the glop of virtual asphalt that filled this pothole in my knowledge.

I post a lot of notes (as NeonMichael) at Cinema Treasures, a non-profit site dedicated to all movie theaters, indoors and drive-ins. For months there, we contributors had been baffled by the County Drive-In of Tucumcari. According to the Motion Picture Almanac series and the Theatre Catalogs, the County opened around 1949 and stayed active into the late 1950s. Those same sources also list the Canal Drive-In, which opened by 1951 and held on till perhaps the mid 1970s.

The earliest easily accessible Tucumcari aerial photos at Historic Aerials are from 1967, and the earliest topo map is from 1971. Both show the Canal, still active then, but no trace of the County. Nothing along the highways leading out of town showed the familiar pattern of drive-in screen, projection booth, and arcs of viewing ramps.

There was (is!) so little info about the County that one Cinema Treasures commenter suggested that the Canal began as the County. Drive-ins change names and cause historians confusion often enough, but there were so many concurrent listings in both contemporary drive-in directories that I figured that the County was its own place. But where?

It’s a lot less convenient than Historic Aerials, and more prone to outages, but the Earth Explorer page at the US Geological Survey site has some advantages. USGS graphics are in the public domain, and more importantly, the site offers aerial photos available nowhere else.

Yesterday afternoon, I spent about an hour drilling down into available aerial photos of Tucumcari. Skipping the images of cloud cover and those that didn’t include the entire town, I got lucky with one shot taken Oct. 10, 1954. The date was perfect for what I needed. There was the Canal on the west side. So I scanned the other highways leaving town and – nothing. No hint of a field of viewing arcs. No screen. Was the County just another name for the Canal?

I tried again, starting from the highways at the edges of the photos and slowly scanning back towards the center. And that’s when I finally found the County. (That’s the relevant piece of the photo at the top of this post.) It was also on the west side, but so close to the middle of town that Tucumcari had grown around it. Its screen cast a shadow, as did its north fence. The County also featured an uncommonly wide, unusually close projector building, which probably included a concession stand and may have offered indoor seating.

Knowing its location, I double-checked the 1967 aerial. Sure enough, that wide building and traces of the viewing arcs were still faintly visible, though not enough to notice without the location hint.

I discovered the County’s location like Columbus discovered America; some of the locals there already knew all about it. I’m sure that I had been in Tucumcari, old-timers could have told me about the County, and the local library’s old newspapers would have also told me the story. But working from Carload World Headquarters in Denver, it was so satisfying to find the proof online that the County was really there.