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Roadside America

Of all the roadside attractions in the fair Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the most pleasant surprise we found was Roadside America in Shartlesville. The surprise was all the more pleasant because it’s hidden inside an uninspiring building with a large model-building and hex-sign gift store. Only the odd fiberglass Amish giants in the huge parking lot hinted at anything odd—and they had no connection whatsoever with the exhibit inside. As you walk into the warehouse-sized enclosure, $5 ticket stub in hand, you’re overwhelmed by a vision that straddles the cozy world of Ozzy and Harriet

America and the compulsions of an obsessive artist, and no matter which camp appeals to you most, you’re likely to get a good hour’s entertainment out of the visit.

Roadside America is a model railroad builder’s basement on an insanely large scale, a miniature town filling a vast hangar. This tiny-and-vast model town is filled with mountains and bridges, tiny people, railroads, working fountains, farms, churches, and everything else that typified life in the first half of the 20th century. It’s something that avoids the kitsch of Department 56 models by its authentic depictions of an area of the country that used to have agriculture and industry, both of which were disappearing even as the model-maker was documenting them.

The model is the brainchild of one man, the late Laurence Gieringer of Reading, who spent 60 years working on the model with some help from his brother Paul. The story goes that as a young child, young Laurence looked out of his bedroom window at lights on the Neversink Mountain and with an infant’s lack of perspective vision, believed it was about the size of his window. When he began modeling, he worked on the same scale, about 3/8ths of an inch to the foot, and kept on working in private until 1935, when he displayed his village to entertain the town’s children at Christmas. It was a great success, but he did not need any more encouragement to carry on working.

Gieringer was a man of great religious faith and a commitment to constant activity, which found its expression in model-making. Something about Gieringer’s personality shows in the great detail and joyfulness of the Roadside America town, even though it was built in the shadow of two world wars, with a pall of economic depression hanging over it. As the work progressed, it became too large to set up and take down, so Gieringer set it up in a firehouse in 1941. Eventually it took up permanent residence in Shartlesville in 1953, where it has been open to the paying public ever since.

Every hour, night falls on the town, and the lights twinkle in the models’ windows. On the wall nearest the entrance, a hokey but strangely touching

slideshow begins, showing shamelessly sentimental images of America that culminate in the image of Lady Liberty holding her torch aloft to light the world, while a scratchy Kate Smith record sings “God Bless America.” Like the last scenes of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s a moment you want to laugh off, but one that secretly has you blinking back tears. If you need to crank up the machismo after this experience, you can always scope out the off-topic display cases around the walls, showing Native American artifacts dug up around the area. There’s one in particular with an interesting untold story behind it: It’s an arrowhead stuck in the side of what looks like a human backbone.

It’s hard to imagine a world in which Roadside America really belongs. It’s not a modern whiz-bang attraction, or an intellectually stimulating cultural experience. Nobody working with balance sheets and focus groups would ever build such a place now, and it’s hard to understand how it has stayed open over the past fifty years. But it’s here, and during our visits, it seems to have quite a bit of foot traffic. We hope that unlike the scenes it depicts, Roadside America is here to stay.

You can read about all of Pennsylvania’s Roadside Oddities and other curious attractions if Weird Pennsylvania.

Weird Pennsylvania

 

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