While doing field research for this book in the greater Philadelphia area, I found one subject kept cropping up. Usually, people would preface their comments with “I know this sounds dumb, but I’ve heard of this place...” and then they’d trail off, as if they were too embarrassed to say more. It got to the point that I’d finish their sentence for them. I’d say “Midgetville.”
They’d be amazed that I’d heard of it too. But they should not have been surprised. Midgetville is a legend across the United States. It’s an El Dorado for those who quest after the unusual. Just outside a settlement of regular-sized people, it seems, there stands a little community populated with undersized people, all living in housing that’s made to their own scale. It’s perfectly proportioned, but built somewhere between half and three-quarters the size of even the tiniest conventional housing. The only troubling thing about this story is its location: it’s always in the home state of whoever’s telling the tale.
The eastern Pennsylvanian Midgetville, they say, is about twenty minutes south of Philadelphia. You can drive to it past the airport on I-95, getting off at the Ridley Park exit. It’s near a hospital on Chester Pike. The trouble is, that’s about as clear as the directions get. All the kids in Ridley High School (and most of the adults who grew up there) have heard of it, but they’re never able to give you reliable directions. In the interests of research, I drove around there for hours, and the closest I came to housing for little people was a collection of beautifully designed garden sheds near the car park of a municipal swim club.
So I dismissed the Ridley Midgetville as just another urban legend. There are, after all, tales of Midgetvilles all over New Jersey and several other states, so it appeared to be a tale someone picked up while on vacation at the Jersey Shore and transplanted to a familiar neighborhood. But that skepticism was all over when I met Karen at the Ridley Township library. She overheard the conversation I was having with a library assistant about the Land of the Little Folk and interrupted us. She simply said, “I’ve been to Midgetville.” The room was galvanized. Everyone within earshot stopped in their tracks. This wasn’t a case of “a friend of my cousin,” it was a first-hand account, and the first of its kind that I’d ever come across. People around me were making comments like “I thought that was just a myth!” Then another woman said, “Did I hear you say Midgetville? My husband went there, back when he was a kid. But he’d never take me there because they threw rocks at him.”
Karen’s not a tall woman, but she reckoned that to get in through one of the doorways there, she’d need to duck her head. The roofs were probably no higher than the ceilings in the library (it’s a low-ceilinged 1960s building). The road is so narrow and winding, you have to turn into a driveway to get out again—and that’s when the residents start to get angry. When pressed for directions, Karen called her husband to get the story straight. He was the one who had taken her to that little cluster of houses years earlier.
However, I never did find the place myself. I took directions from a first-hand eyewitness, but they led to regular housing nothing like the tiny town in the stories. Nevertheless, her tale allayed my skepticism. It also reminded me of how annoyed I am when people hang around outside my house after dark. So I’ll leave the little folk of Ridley to get on with their lives undisturbed. And as a side benefit, I’ll avoid getting rocks thrown at my car.
There’s No Place Like Gnome
Midgetville isn’t hard to find. It’s off a narrow little driveway opposite Taylor Hospital on Chester Pike. The road’s very narrow and there’s no outlet, so you have to turn around in a driveway at the end. But you can’t miss it. If you go, just click your heels together three times! –Pete S.
I Knew a Resident
I’ve been to Midgetville, and I knew someone who used to live around there. She’d get really mad with us when we talked about the place. She kept telling us that it was just an optical illusion because the houses were set down at an angle. But I’m telling you, those doorways were definitely too small for a regular person. –D. Cas
For the full story on Midgetville and Pennsylvania’s many other Fabled People and Places see Weird Pennsylvania.