Utopian Vision of an America Long Gone
Published in the Philadelphia City Paper in 1993.
to see more than you expect," the sign on the front of Roadside America
warned. We didn't know what to expect. Our map had identified Roadside
America, which is about 15 miles north of Reading, as a "point of
interest," but that was all we knew.
The front section
of the building contained a large gift shop. In the back of the shop an
elderly woman sat in a booth in front of a dark, aging curtain. Evidently,
Roadside America, whatever it was, was behind the curtain. To the side
was a picture of the attraction's creator, Laurence Gieringer, and several
signs proclaiming his creation's greatness. We each anted up the $3.75
entrance fee and stepped inside.
What we encountered
was indeed more than we'd expected. We spent the next 45 minutes in a
state of amazement at the colorful, nostalgic, miniature wonderland before
The Guiness Book of
World Records called Roadside America, "the world's largest miniature
village," but besides the small scale there's nothing miniature about
it. The exhibit takes up over 8,000 square feet, filling an area the size
of a small gymnasium. It's probably one of the world's largest model train
installations as well, but the trains are just a small part of it. The
heart and soul of Roadside America are the thousands of hand-made model
buildings-homes, stores, churches, stables, cabins, factories, barns,
mills, gas stations, movie theaters, and more. All are architecturally
accurate replicas of small town and rural buildings dating back 200 years.
Roadside America also
has meticulously detailed railroad yards, farms, orchards, public parks
with monuments, a baseball field, a coal mine, and a zoo. It even has
American Indian and caveman scenes, approximately 100 hand-made horse-drawn
carriages, and numerous metal bridges. The attraction has little people
too, over 4,000 of them.
What makes Roadside
America so much fun is that it doesn't just sit there. It's a wonderland
of Rube Goldberg-esque movement. Gieringer ingeniously rigged moving waterfalls,
creeks, fountains, trains, trollies, cars, and figures. A helicopter and
plane fly in circles a few feet above the towns. An old-time grist mill
grinds away. The citizens work, walk, and play baseball. The movement
is controlled by almost 2,000 transformers, switches, pumps, and motors
as well as miles of wiring beneath the display. Six thousand gallons of
water are pumped through its waterways every hour. All of this activity
is accompanied by sound effects from hidden speakers.
The exhibit is set
up for self-guided tours. You walk along a railing that circles the main
platform. Every few feet, you find a number indicating the set of buildings
or scene in front of you, which is explained in the brochure.
I didn't care much
about the architectural or historical correctness. With all the model
houses and trains, I couldn't help but think of Christmas morning and
toys. In fact, with the buttons on the railing that let you control much
of the action in the display, Roadside America is like a big toy. I pressed
every one of the buttons. I was literally giddy that we had found, almost
be accident, such an amazing place.
Every half-hour the
visitor to Roadside America is treated to Night Pageant. The proprietors
slowly turn down the lighting. The sun sets on the western wall in colors
of orange and red. The lights inside the model buildings come up. The
stars, represented by thousands of lights in the dark blue ceiling, sparkle.
A dramatic spotlight focuses on a mural of the Statue of Liberty, the
lights in her crown shining proudly.
The atmosphere, which
had been friendly and casual, becomes hushed and reverent. "The Star
Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America" are played through
raspy speakers as the spotlight alternates between a picture of Jesus
and Old Glory. If I hadn't been so awestruck by the volume of work and
dedication it represented, the obsessive attention to detail, and the
ingeniousness of it, I would've laughed out loud. Instead, I just smiled.
It was a transcendant moment.
Roadside America has
a shrine-like atmosphere, and the memory of Laurence Gieringer is treated
with reverence. He is worshipped with plaques, pictures, and loving dedications
throughout the installation and the brochures, which is understandable
when you realize he dedicated 60 years of ceaseless, tireless labor to
Born in 1895, Laurence
Gieringer started constructing model buildings from raw materials like
wood, mica, and metal as a youngster. It was his boyhood dream to build
a miniature town like the city of Reading. He continued with his hobby
into adulthood, enhancing his skills as the years went by. According to
the Gieringer legend, he worked during the day as a laborer but put all
of his spare time, money, and energy into his treasured miniature buildings.
his childhood sweetheart, Dora. She too was enthusiastic about the project
and helped with the work. Dora is credited with making the 10,000 or so
hand-made trees in the current installation. Their two children were put
to work painting the models.
By the '30s, word
had spread through the Pennsylvania Dutch country of Gieringer's creation.
In 1938, a 1,500 square foot exhibit of his work was set up in a nearby
town, and newspapers, magazines, and newsreels from around the country
hailed Gieringer's work as the "World's Greatest Miniature Village."
The publicity fueled Gieringer's creativity, and the miniature village
continued to grow and expand. Through the years, it was moved to several
different exhibit halls, finally settling in its current location in the
Roadside America may
not be great art, but I was fascinated that someone would dedicate their
life to what was essentially an enormous model and train layout, which
might make Gieringer the ultimate nerd but he's a fascinating nerd. With
a determined, individualistic, do-it-yourself mentality, Gieringer forged
something truly unique.
Roadside America is
Gieringer's utopian vision of American life back in the good old days,
when everyone worked hard and honored God and country. He knew the American
Dream wasn't playing out perfectly in the world around him, especially
during the depression years, so he simply decided to create it. Consequently,
you'll see no signs of unemployment, poverty, crime, or pollution in Roadside
America. It's an idealized vision with an otherworldly feel--a temporary
refuge from the angst-ridden, alienated, violent, harried, information-overloaded,
'90s urban experience. Roadside America was Gieringer's escape, and now
it can be yours. It's is one of the strangest and most beautiful folk
art wonders in this area.
Laurence and Dora
Gieringer have long since passed away. Roadside America is currently operated
and maintained by Gieringer's daughter, Alberta, and her family. Go see
it if you get a chance. Just be prepared to see more than you expect.
America is open every day. Its located in the heart of Pennsylvania
Dutch country on Route 78/22 in Shartlesville, PA. Phone: 610-488-6241.)
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