By Bryan Hay
I hadn’t visited Roadside America in Pennsylvania’s Americana Region since I was a kid. Exiting I-78 at Shartlesville on a recent Saturday, I wondered, after all these years, if there’d be a rediscovery of the same childhood excitement, of wide eyes encountering a sprawling miniature village, conceived, constructed and displayed in overwhelming detail, and toy trains chugging across railways and tiny trestles before me.
My wife was along for her first-time visit. I worried that middle-age cynicism would somehow creep in and corrupt the enchantment and sense of nostalgia. After an introduction and history of the world’s “Greatest Indoor Miniature Village,” manager Brian Hilbert led us, without delay, into the display room. Any worries that time and perspective would diminish the wonder were immediately washed away.
My eyes darted everywhere, first across the sweeping 7,450-square-foot display, then more specifically into the fictional town of Fairfield, Pa., with its subtle homage to Pennsylvania’s Americana Region, including working farms and the former Long’s service station in Hamburg. Dazed by it all, you move slowly across the perimeter walkways to see what Laurence Gieringer, a self-taught carpenter, and artist, created from his fertile imagination.
As the story goes, Gieringer and his brother found early inspiration when their mother sent them out of their home in Reading one night while she cooked dinner. They found their way to Mount Penn and, gazing down on Reading, agreed to create a city in miniature.
Their dad made saddles and harnesses and helped the boys set up a workshop, where they refined their skills building miniature buildings, Hilbert said, noting that the work became almost an obsession. After his brother entered the priesthood, Gieringer carried on the work, eventually moving the miniatures to his home, then to a fire company in Reading and later to an amusement park.
“Without him knowing about it, his wife entered the display in a competition for a Christmas decoration contest and it won. He was encouraged to open his display for the public to see,” Hilbert said. “He was so generous and would let people in to see it without charging admission. He showed it to everybody.”
Roadside America opened its current location in 1953 and has been there ever since. “He spent the last 10 years of his life here,” Hilbert says. “He even painted the murals on the side walls.” Roadside America was almost poised to close not too long ago. But the community paid back Gieringer’s generosity to raise money to replace the pillar-less barrel roof, a project that was completed earlier this year.
There’s renewed interest in the attraction among new visitors and grandparents who remembered coming as kids. They now bring their grandchildren to experience anew the intricate, handmade tableau. About 38,000 people visited last year; more than 40,000 are expected this year. “Look out here and you see hundreds of years of American history represented in all four seasons,” Hilbert said. “The detail is amazing – the paint on the stained glass in one of the churches took four years to develop.”
Among the 140 lighted buildings and features, you’ll see are factories, churches, barns, homes, train depots, service stations, circus parade, cemeteries, Indian villages, even Henry Ford’s workshop and Paul Revere’s tavern. Gieringer even included Western Town, perhaps a nod to his dad’s tack shop, and homes damaged by fire, to spread a public service message about safety, Hilbert said. A single building could take 100 hours to create. “He was the greatest miniature model builder of his day,” Hilbert said.
Asked to identify his favorite miniature, Hilbert took me to the base of the mountain made of 10 tons of concrete. Tucked at its base and surrounded by trees ablaze in fall foliage is a cabin that he has long admired. “It just looks like a place you’d want to be,” Hilbert said. The work to maintain the display is endless. The eight trains and trolley that travel 240,000 miles a year require constant oiling, and Hilbert just patched up of the ponds that dot the landscape, draining 2,200 gallons of water and replacing it with fresh spring water. LED lights are slowly replacing the old bulbs.
Before long, Hilbert summoned us to the balcony for the moment every repeat visitor anticipates. Lights in the neighborhood dim as night falls, stars appear, an airplane circles in the sky above. A recording of “Night Has Fallen,” a public sign-off in the heyday of radio plays, followed by the National Anthem and Kate Smith’s singing of “God Bless America.”
Even the most cynical heart would melt at this pageantry, as out of date as it may seem. You just have to let go and believe in the staying power of Roadside America.
I have no idea how long we stayed, but it seemed like it was time to get on our way, even though we wanted to linger and look for more magic. Before heading out, we stopped at the Pennsylvania Dutch gift shop next door, also operated by the Gieringer family, which is stocked with a mix of fun, kitschy souvenirs and authentic locally produced hex signs and cookbooks.
“Come back again,” Hilbert said. “It’s still going, after all these years.”
For more information, visit www.roadsideamerica.com.