Fun Places to Visit
The Absolutely Original Roadside America
By Richard “Zippy” Grigonis — November 3, 2010
“…it is a remarkable demonstration of a man’s craftsmanship and love and understanding for his country and its people.”
—Hal Willard, writing in 1965.
The term “Roadside America” has been bandied about since the early 20th century. But the “original” Roadside America is not just a term for roadside attractions and eateries, but an actual roadside attraction in the little village of Shartlesville, Pennsylvania, near Amish country. The original Roadside America is a spectacular, superbly detailed, enchanting indoor miniature village and railway covering 8,000 square feet (704 square meters) with nearly 400 miniature buildings, working model trains, push-button animations and 4,000 miniature people.
exterior photo of roadside america, shartlesville, Pennsylvania.
The epic saga of the original Roadside America began in 1900 with a 5-year-old boy named Laurence T. Gieringer who lived in Berks County, Pennsylvania. Although basically a rural area, the county since June 30, 1890 was served by the third electric railroad in America (the Neversink Mountain Railroad), which also happened to be the first electric railroad powered by hydroelectricity, derived from the “Big Dam” on the Schuylkill River below Reading. Little Laurence would frequently stare out of his bedroom window into the night, toward the 920-foot high Neversink Mountain, which with Mount Penn flanks the present-day city of Reading. Neversink was a lively place at the turn of the 20th century, with five hotels and the Klapperthal Pavilion, a big entertainment complex that boasted having the largest dance floor in Pennsylvania.
aerial view of reading, pennsylvania and the Schuylkill river.
As he gazed toward the great dark hulk of Neversink Mountain its presence dominating the night scene, little Laurence could make out one particular, softly glowing hotel that seemed to crown the mountain with its twinkling electric lights—the 118-room Highland hotel, built in 1884. The boy, dazzled by the fairy-tale visage before him and cognizant of neither its true size nor distance, was enticed once day to wander from his secure backyard and venture forth through the woods to retrieve what looked like a “toy” building from the mountaintop and make it his own. Stuffing a banana and a few crackers into his pockets, the set out on his expedition up the mountainside in quest of his prize. Laurence soon became confused, lost, and was found at 6 A.M. the next morning by his frantic parents leading a search party. He had made it about two-thirds of the way up the mountainside.
In another (1947) version of the story, the writer makes the “reality check” more shocking by substituting an ordinary home for the Highland hotel: “Bitter at being overhauled [found by the search party], the boy was comforted only when his parents agreed to take him to the end of the road… Disillusionment clouded Laurence’s eyes when he beheld just another ordinary sized house with no lights at all in the bright morning, no enchantment, no magic lure. But Laurence Gieringer’s dream was not ended; in fact, it had only begun.”
What should have been a traumatic experience did not dampen Gieringer’s intense interest in “toy” structures, one that dominated the remainder of his life.
Indeed, Gieringer became fascinated with the idea of capturing times and places in the form of miniature model snapshots, perhaps partly because his quaint, folksy, rural world was starting to change. In 1903 the Klapperthal Pavilion on Neversink Mountain was demolished. In 1917 the innovative electric railroad would go bankrupt. In October 1930 the Highland hotel would be destroyed by fire.
The Work Begins
Laurence would often sit atop the nearby mountains and gaze down in wonderment at the town of Reading spread out below, with the Schuylkill River winding its way among homes. From the mountaintop vantage point, Reading resembled a collection of detailed, miniature works of art. Four years after his failed attempt to bring down the Highland Hotel from the mountaintop Laurence and his younger brother Paul stood atop Mount Penn and looked down upon Reading’s distant homes and buildings. Laurence allegedly turned to his brother and said, “Paul, wouldn’t it be swell to make little houses the same size they look from here?” Paul also became convinced it was a good idea, and the two brothers soon began crafting toy buildings as a hobby.
Fortunately, the Gieringer brothers' parents accommodated their hobbyist inclinations. Their father supplied them with a small workbench and tools. To purchase their “building supplies” (nails, glue, paint, mica, and so forth) the brothers engaged in assorted odd jobs. Often they used scraps of wood, discarded tin cans, wire, pieces of metal, pipe cleaners, paper and other odds and ends.
For inspiration, the boys methodically searched through their local library for any books on American architecture covering everything from pioneer days to modern times.
After the brothers dutifully completed their school homework each evening, Laurence and Paul labor intently for hours whittling wood and otherwise laboring on their miniature houses. Help came from an unexpected quarter, a nun at their Catholic school who happened to be an artist and who tutored them in drawing technique. The price of the lessons? Three pennies for plain sketching lessons, five cents for pastel tutoring—the cost in those days of pencils and paper. The art lessons enabled Laurence to first make detailed sketches of buildings that he would then recreate in precise miniature form.
After seven years of this hobby work, brother Paul had the calling to become a priest, leaving Laurence to go it alone (Paul later became Monsignor Paul Gieringer, head of the Josephinian Pontifical College in Worthington, Ohio). At the age of 16 Laurence worked for a time in the printing business, but it didn’t interest him. He instead settled on becoming a carpenter and painter. It was like working with his model buildings, but on a larger scale.
Laurence whittled, glued, sawed, painted and hammered away, slowly creating the elements of a miniature village: homes, church, horse stables, farmhouses, barns, and so forth. He instinctively settled on building all of his miniatures on a scale of 3/8 of an inch to the foot.
When he was in his 20s, Laurence married Dora Seisler (January 6, 1895 – December 1973) a neighbor who grew up with him and who shared his model making interests. Their children, Paul and Alberta, would also help in the effort.
When making his miniatures, Laurence Gieringer was a stickler for detail. He would often journey to New York, scouring places such as the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts to scrutinize their miniatures and take visual notes. He discovered that no artist/craftsman had ever incorporated stained glass windows into a miniature (Gieringer himself had spent 400 hours building a miniature cathedral with 44 hand-painted windows) so he promptly went home and, after three years of experiments, devised his own method of making color-fast stained glass for miniature churches.
Roadside America Goes Public
Laurence Gieringer continued to expand his little world for the next 25 years. His efforts began to get some attention. On Christmas, 1935, Gieringer, as was customary, set up a section of his miniature display for his children, Paul and Alberta. The Reading Eagle newspaper had been tipped off as to Gieringer’s extraordinary undertaking, and sent over a reporter to have a look. The resulting feature story brought even more attention to Gieringer’s efforts. Soon, the Rainbow Fire Company offered space in their building so the village could be viewed by the public. Admission was charged, but the earnings went to local charities. Not all of the exhibit could fit in the building, and it attracted more people than anyone had expected. In 1938, Gieringer set up a more formal presentation, a public display in a 1,500 square foot facility in Carsonia Park.
In 1941, Laurence Gieringer combined both displays into a single large exhibit near Hamburg. He now called it “Roadside America.” Aided by his wife and children, Gieringer continued to expand Roadside America in size and scope, and in 1953 the exhibit moved to a larger building in its current setting in Shartlesville, Pennsylvania, Exit 23 on Interstate 78, approximately 20 miles west of the Lehigh Valley, north of Reading and between Allentown and the Pennsylvania capital of Harrisburg.
old Postcard of Laurence T. Gieringer and one of his reproductions.
A 1947 newspaper account claimed that in constructing Roadside America, Laurence Gieringer had thus far used 9,520 feet of board lumber, 4,000 feet of building paper, 1,728 feet of railroad and trolley track, 11,080 feet of electric wire, 513 light bulbs, 12,000 pounds of plaster, 4,000 miniature figures, 10,000 miniature trees and shrubs, 250 pounds of nails, 42 gallons of paint, two barrels of green sawdust, six tons of stone, 8,000 pounds of sand, 145 miniature railroad cars and 1,700 feet of tracks for trains and trolleys.
According to a 2004 article in The Baltimore Sun on the construction and crafting of Roadside America, Gieringer eventually used 17,700 board feet of lumber, 4,000 pounds of sheet iron, 2,250 feet of railroad and trolley track and five electric pumps that move 6,000 gallons of water per hour.
Gieringer’s wife, Dora, is credited with beautifying the landscape of Roadside America by making about 10,000 miniature trees and shrubberies.
In a 1979 interview, Walter Bernecker, Gieringer’s son-in-law, said that the exhibit was at that time 100 feet long and 60 feet wide with 1.5 miles of train track and a good 100 trains.
“We can’t run all the trains at one time,” he said. “Some of the trains run continually, while others can be started and stopped by the visitors who push buttons.”
Pushing buttons is a favorite activity of visitors to Roadside America. The entire exhibit is interactive and animated. In fact, the whole "button business," as daughter Alberta calls it, is surprising in itself. There are many buttons to push and unexpected results to see and experience: Press a little button and something will move, play music, ring a church bell, sing, drive, or even start up a miniature steam roller to pave a road with asphalt. You can see trolleys, buses and trains in operation. Water wheels powering grist mills. Walking cows. Woodchoppers. A circus. Even a miniscule organ grinder grinds away.
As they say at Roadside America, “Be prepared to see more than you expect—you’ll be amazed.”
Yes, just push a button and you can recreate the idealized, patriotic world of Laurence Gieringer.
If only it were that easy to do in real life.
Gieringer left his personal religious and patriotic imprint on the exhibit, and his whole family still regards Roadside America as more than a mere tourist attraction and source of income. You can see and hear it every 25 minutes when the lights gradually dim and Roadside America’s “Night Pageant” occurs. Hundreds (or is it thousands?) of stars appear overhead. Lights flick on in the homes and on street corners. Planes hover over the brightly lit airport. The animation comes to temporary stop as the village settles down to “sleep.” And then the religious and patriotic American folk songs resound over the loudspeakers. It’s the last vestige of pure old-time Americana, the vision of an America nearly lost to the memory and imagination, now existing only in legend—and at Roadside America.
Gieringer’s Hobby Panacea Theory
Gieringer came to believe that hobbies could prevent juvenile delinquency, saying in 1947 that “hobbies keep children off the street… If youngsters’ hands are busy, they don’t get into mischief.” His dream at the time was to see the founding of a national hobby center where exhibits of all kinds could be shown to inspire other hobbyists.
However, few if any hobbyists could even come close to the abilities of Laurence Gieringer.
A 1950-era esso gas station (it would now be an exxon station) in the “Modern America” section of roadside america. in those days the price of gasoline was 23.9 cents a gallon.
Indeed, despite the clever interactive and “kinetic art” aspects of Roadside America, most people visiting the exhibit are mesmerized with the scenes of an older, nostalgic America frozen in time. In a section called “Modern America” (1950s modern, that is, based on the village of Fairfield, PA) an ESSO (pre Exxon) service station is selling gasoline for 23.9 cents a gallon and planes are about to take off from the well-designed airport. Homes have no unsightly television antennas cluttering the roofs. There is also a pioneer village of 300 years ago and a Western pioneer locale.
You can also see a shrine church that is a miniature reproduction of a real memorial chapel in the Alps. A tiny fountain bubbles in a miniature zoo. A mountain trolley clatters through the woodland. Tollgates, covered bridges, Old American Dutch farms. The Old State House. A cathedral where sacred music plays from an organ. A trolley line that follows a precise schedule. A General Store with the sign “fresh meats on Saturday only.” The home of “Mammy Flumm,” the wash woman of the village. Gieringer even included a miniature version of his father’s harness shop.
Roadside America’s many “human details” are what really brings the exhibit alive, perhaps even more so than the animations: A father flies a red kite for his son. A miniature tramp leans against a white fence, a dog at his heels. A barn dance complete with music and participants “do-si-do-ing.” A crowd packed into a grandstand watching a baseball game. Youngsters walking on narrow curbstones. A boy whose feet are tangled in an electric wire. Dogs sniffing at fire hydrants. Tiny goldfish swimming in streams and ponds. Housewives hanging out their washing (in an age before dryers) or gossiping over back fences. Women taking dough to Peter Miller’s Bake Shop to have it baked into bread for a penny a loaf. A dentist’s office (the dentist doubles as the horse doctor), where he extracts teeth for 25 cents and fashions dentures of wood for $1.50.
Photo from the roadside america brochure only hints at the enormity and amazing detail of this exhibit, the life’s work of one man, with some help from his wife and kids.
The fantastic attention to detail is mesmerizing, as Hal Willard wrote in 1965: “The chief problem in viewing the exhibit is keeping people moving along the railing around it. Adults as well as children stand suspended in imagination as they stare at the little people in their little houses and cars going about their everyday activities at the store, the gas station, the factory, the church, the school.”
In keeping with the “frozen time” aspect of the place, there is a myth that the exhibit itself was frozen in size and shape when Gernecker died in 1963. Actually, as Bernecker said in 1979, “There has been a lot more added to it since then, but I’m afraid we can’t add too much more. We don’t have the space.”
Not that Roadside America wasn’t impressive anyway. One person who was amazed was Emil Sveilis, who in a 1979 newspaper article wrote, “More than 20 years ago, as an immigrant child from Europe barely able to speak English, I first saw the glittering village depicting life in America, I was awed… It was called Roadside America and contained dozens of moving model trains, trams, cars and airplanes in a setting surrounded by mountains, tunnels, houses, streets and people—typical Americana from sea to shining sea.”
Laurence Gieringer died on January 13, 1963, but his family still owns this remarkable tourist attraction.
Go see it. There’s nothing quite like it.
Coates, Patricia Weil. Roadside America. (2006, January 2). The Washington Post, p. M08.
Roadside America is a panorama of life. (1973, June 5). Bucks County Courier Times [Levittown, PA], p. 21.
Seitz, Melanie. Tiny town is a big attraction. (2004, January 1). The Baltimore Sun.
Sveilis, Emil. Model town depicts life in U.S. (1979, July 12). The Progress [Clearfield, PA], p. 13.
Willard, Hal. Miniature village recreates U.S. past. (1965, August 21). Winnipeg Free Press [Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada], p. 26.
WNU Features. Picturesque miniature village depicts history of America. (1947, February 13). Billings County Pioneer [Medora, ND], p. 7.