Story and photos by Gregg D. Merksamer
Roadside America, which celebrated 60 years at its current Shartlesville, Pa., location on Aug. 4, 2013, has long used local hilltop billboards to proclaim itself “The World’s Greatest Indoor Miniature Village.” The billboards are a mainstay to motorists traveling the adjacent Interstate 78/U.S. 22 corridor that puts Allentown, Harrisburg, Hershey and Carlisle within an hour’s drive of Exit 23 to Roadside America.
Having visited it dozens of times since I first discovered it as a Lehigh University student exploring the old two-lane U.S. 22 in the early 1980s, I can vouch that Roadside America’s boast that it’s “The World’s Greatest Indoor Miniature Village” is not unfounded.
What’s truly amazing is how little — if at all — the place has changed in the three-plus decades since I first visited. The attraction’s website at www.roadsideamericainc.com further emphasizes this with a 58-year-old, Chrysler-produced travelogue film where a brand-new 1955 Plymouth convertible owner is admiring the same tiny wonders captivating tourists today.
Imagine, in all its insanely detailed glory, a 6,000-square-foot space touting 400 scratch-built structures representing two-plus centuries of U.S. industry and community. The diorama includes houses, churches, schools, farmsteads, factories, bridges and even coal mines united into one whole by 2,250 feet of train and trolley track, 10,000 miniature trees and 6,000 gallons of electrically re-circulated water filling various rivers, lakes and canals. With more than 4,000 tiny people populating the layout, interactivity is encouraged by the many buttons visitors can push to run a steamroller over some freshly laid asphalt; start the playground’s swings and seesaws moving up and down; or put some tramps to work cutting wood in exchange for supper from the farmer’s wife. Even if your travel pace dictates a brief stay, do not miss the twice-hourly Night Pageant dimming of the overhead lights for a charming slide show where the “Stars and Stripes” and the Statue of Liberty are patriotically spot-lit to the accompaniment of “God Bless America.”
Roadside America has the railroad layout every kid dreamed of building in his basement. Of course, most kids lacked the patience, skill and dedication required to create something truly enduring from 21,500 feet of electrical wiring, 18,000 lbs. of plaster, 17,700 board feet of lumber and 900 lbs. of nails.
Tiny gets personal
“I was born into this on March 25, 1948,” asserted Dolores Heinsohn, the granddaughter of Roadside America founder Laurence T. Gieringer. Heinsohn owns the adjacent Pennsylvania Dutch Gift Haus, which rewards separate scrutiny with its complete, sequentially arranged display of every Keystone State license plate issued since 1906.
“Most of the people who come here have been here before, have been brought by others, or have been coming generation to generation. Sometimes, the people who come back here return with binoculars.” The latest page in her guest book records a couple traveling all the way from Japan.
Heinsohn further confirms, “Lots of people attending the Hershey meet have visited, especially on rainy days before they paved the flea market. As soon as they came in with mud up to their knees, I’d know just where they came from.”
Roadside America is truly a family affair. Heinsohn’s mother, Alberta Bernecker, “always liked to sit at the admission desk and listen to people’s reactions as they walked through the door for the first time.” Even when a skeptic balks at the $6.75 adult admission fee that’s “no more than the price of a pack of cigarettes these days,” no one is permitted “just a peek” beyond the lobby display of hand-made trains as “it would spoil the surprise. Hard as it is to convey to people what it is when I try to convince them to see it for the first time, they’re different people after they come out.
“Children look at the displays differently than grown-ups,” she added. “They have fun pushing the buttons and running the trains, while the adults appreciate the workmanship and how my grandfather spent a lifetime doing it.”
Legend has it that Laurence Gieringer’s six-decade fascination with miniatures started around 1899, when he was a 5-year-old awe-struck by the nighttime views his Reading, Pa., bedroom window offered of a brilliantly lit hotel topping nearby Neversink Mountain. Thinking it could be snatched off the summit and added to his toy box, the young tot wound up the target of a search party after getting lost in the woods overnight. He was nonetheless inspired in the long term to set up a cellar workbench where he started building barns and other little structures at the arbitrary scale of 3/8 inches to the foot.
Maturing into an exceptionally skilled carpenter and painter, Gieringer was also resourceful. During the impoverished Depression years, he created simulated granite tombstones that proved quite popular and which his wife, Dora, sold door to door.
“He was very particular, spending months and months on a single building getting it right,” granddaughter Heinsohn said. She noted everything was made from scratch since hobby shops didn’t exist yet (one greenhouse, for example, was based on a tomato can). “Every piece is a one-of-a-kind work of art,” she said, emphasizing “the buildings are very sturdy, being made from old, aged wood that never warps. Much of it came from a friend who worked at a country auction, where he got grandpa scraps of furniture” that proved ideal for model making. “The windows are real glass as well,” Heinsohn said, adding that her grandfather “spent years working out a durable translucent paint for staining church windows that has never had to be retouched.”
The founding of a museum
The first public display of Gieringer’s miniature buildings took place inside the family home at 218 Clymer Street in Reading, in connection with a December 1935 holiday decoration contest sponsored by the Reading Eagle newspaper. Two of three judges awarding Gieringer top honors over 50 other entrants wrote him letters urging additional public displays. Thereafter, the local Rainbow Fire Company staged a 680-square-foot 1936 charitable benefit exhibit that attracted 49,000 visitors in six weeks, pretty much mandating a return engagement for Christmas 1937.
“All of the buildings in that display are still in the current display,” Heinsohn said.
By 1938, Gieringer’s layout filled 1,500 square feet in the old carousel building at Reading’s Carsonia Park, and there was even speculation it would be moved to the 1939-’40 New York World’s Fair or the “Odditorium” at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. The first proposition fell through when it turned out the fair’s organizers expected Gieringer “to sign away my home, my belongings, practically my life” to shoulder setup costs at top-dollar New York City rates of $14.50 per square foot plus $2.50-per-hour for each workman. In regard to Gieringer himself, the Ripley’s people asserted, “You’re too normal a man” and wanted him to pretend he was “half blind-half crazy” after “umpty-ump years creating this masterpiece,” literally becoming “The berserk model maker from Berks County.”
Ultimately, Gieringer opted for a more-sensible 1941-’53 expansion of his “International Miniature Village.” His diorama landed at Schlenker’s, a bustling dance hall, truck stop, Greyhound terminal and Ford V-8 service agency situated on the Hex Highway about four miles east of Shartlesville, Pa.
“If he liked certain people, he made a model of their building and put it in the display,” Heinsohn recalled of her grandfather. As a result, Long’s “Most Modern” Esso Servicecenter is based on a station that once stood along PA-61 in Reading, where Kaufmann’s glass-fronted furniture store proved another promising subject. It was at this time also that the current Roadside America name was coined by Gieringer’s son Paul before he died in New York City during his 20s in 1947.
Roadside America’s current 1953-to-present spread west of Shartlesville was advantageously located between the original two-lane and the new four-lane U.S. 22 another quarter mile north. The heavily wooded, 17-acre site required clearing and a couple of hundred truckloads’ worth of shale to fill in the swamp, but Heinsohn thought it was worth the trouble.
“In the early 1950s,” Dolores recalled in regional parlance, “grandpa was always ‘in rent,’ but he had a friend named Raymond Zweizig who delivered heating oil and advised him, ‘You should have a place of your own.’ When grandpa protested he didn’t have enough money, Ray said, ‘I’ll loan you the money, and you can pay me back when you’re up and running and successful.’ It was all between friends on a handshake with no lawyers and no nothing.”
Heinsohn’s documents naturally includes the original $2,460 construction invoice dated March 25, 1953, while her dated album photos show the interior’s tiny streets were already laid out by June 5.
“Once the building was up, it all went fast” she said. “My grandfather didn’t even tell his landlord at Schlenker’s he was moving, though he did tell friends to save up boxes and newspapers and expect a phone call. When everyone showed up at once for the big move on a Friday night, every box containing a building was numbered to correspond to its place on the platform at the new location, so the box was just put there on arrival.” One especially big advantage over the old dance hall location was that there were no more roof pillars planted in the diorama.
Maintaining the mystique
At Laurence Gieringer’s passing at age 69 on Jan. 13, 1963, his final, unfinished building was a Jewish synagogue. The timing of his death ensured his masterpiece would stay delectably frozen in a more innocent time unsullied by the turbulent 1960s, let alone the migration of Main Street businesses and movie theaters to that bland commercial strip beside the mall. Grandma Dora Gieringer, having made all of Roadside America’s miniature trees from baby’s breath and crow’s foot, resisted two separate opportunities to sell out. One even reached the point where she had the lawyer’s pen in her hand to sign the papers before deciding, “I need to think about it” before she reunited with her husband at age 79 on Dec. 21, 1973. “Her words were, ‘Never sell it piece by piece, because nobody would have the heart to keep it going like family.’” Granddaughter Dolores Heinsohn is indeed fortunate to have her 27-year-old daughter Felicia Heinsohn on-site representing Roadside America’s fourth generation of Gieringer descendents.
Maintaining Roadside America requires more than family. As “there’s always something to fix around here, 10 times more than a house,” Heinsohn also believes “I wouldn’t be in business without Kevin Reed, who started working here as a handyman before Felicia was born. When my grandpa built the building, he never envisioned it would still be here 60 years later, and he certainly didn’t insulate it for a time when heating oil costs $4 a gallon instead of 25 cents.” Despite the march of time and the “treadmill” of taxes, maintenance and long hours — Christmas is the only day the doors of Roadside America are closed entirely — “you’re here because of the people who love it and the memories they have of it.” In deference to them, Dolores declares firmly, “We will not change. It’s my grandfather’s legacy and I don’t want to put new things or someone else’s work in it. You wouldn’t have someone else finish off an unfinished Picasso.”
Roadside America visitor information
Situated in Shartlesville, Pa., at Interstate 78, Exit 23 between Allentown and Harrisburg. Open daily from 9 a.m.-6:30 p.m. on weekdays from July through Labor Day, and from 9 a.m.-7 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. September-through-June “Winter” hours run 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays and 10-6 p.m. on weekends excepting the Christmas Day closure.
Admission is free for children 5-and-under, $3.75 for ages 6-11, and $6.75 for adults 12-and-over. For more info, visit www.roadsideamericainc.com or phone 610-488-6241 between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.