Roadside America: a cultural treasure fell victim to COVID restrictions

·5 min read

SHARTLESVILLE, Pa. — The little towns of Fairfield, Sleepy Hollow, and Beaver Creek aren’t here anymore.

Neither are Amos and Anna, the endearing, larger-than-life fiberglass Amish couple who were perched outside and once welcomed visitors to Roadside America, home to an expansive and painstakingly detailed America in miniature that for 85 years delighted everyone who walked through its doors.

SHARLETSVILLE, Penn. — Just as you enter Roadside America there was a blue sign that read: "Who enters here will be taken by surprises — be prepared to see more than you expect." It definitely lived up to that hype.

(Courtesy of Roadside America)

No one is walking through those doors anymore. Somehow I had missed the news last November that the 8,000 square foot Upper Bern Township icon, which had delighted me both as a child and a parent, had become a victim of the Pennsylvania state government's lockdown during last year’s pandemic.

It was a gut punch to drive over Blue Mountain and onto old U.S. Route 22, expecting to stop in again for a healthy dose of nostalgia, only to find that the "World's Largest Miniature Village” was gone.

Fairfield, Sleepy Hollow and Beaver Creek were the names of the towns that made up the miniature America. Even the blue sign hanging over the front door that read, “Who enters here will be taken by surprise — be prepared to see more than you expect,” is gone.

That was the thing about Roadside America that made it so comforting and valuable. If it was your first time, you were blown away by the artistry and detail that went into every home, person, bridge, railcar, ball field and construction worker placed ever so perfectly in the miniature village. If you were back for the second or the fifty-second time you were also surprised because nothing had changed and there was comfort and awe in that as well.

Reading native Laurence Gieringer, its creator, first became interested in model-building as a child, when he and his brother Paul stood on a hill overlooking his hometown and thought the town, laid out by William Penn’s sons, looked like a toy village. Both felt a desire to recreate that imagery.

The boys started small, first building a miniature farm. Soon, they found they wanted to build more, so they sold homemade ice cream and popcorn at the local baseball park near their home to raise the money to pay for their materials. Word got around and people started donating junk furniture to the boys. By 1906, they were so dedicated that they worked with the librarian in town to get all of the history correct, according to press accounts at the time.

And their tiny village kept growing.

When brother Paul decided that the priesthood was his calling, Larry continued on with his wife by his side — the idea was not to create some cheap carnival sideshow, but education through exhibition; by 1953, their model of America spanning over 200 years found a home, and Larry lived his dream when he opened Roadside America.

The place was complete with picnic tables, a pony ride, a little engine that drove the kids around a track and a petting zoo outside, as well as a generous parking lot and a vision of America recreated for everyone to enjoy.

It was the era of the great American road trip. U.S. 22 at that time could take a family from New Jersey to Indiana. The Gieringer family was no different than the Stuckey family, which began by selling pecans out of a shed to tourists heading south off Route 23 in Eastman, Georgia; or the Johnson family that eventually came to dot America’s highways with affordable, orange-roofed hotels to stay in.

Gieringer, Stuckey, Johnson and so many others understood intuitively that through their ventures, they were building local community and American culture. Culture, after all, isn’t just what we find influencers telling us on social media or corporations pushing in ad campaigns or Hollywood depicting in movies.

And when we lose part of the culture, we risk losing part of ourselves.

In January, the entire contents of Roadside America was auctioned off, including Amos and Anna. Each piece was dismantled with care and packed up and sent off to all parts of the country, a testimony to how much the exhibition meant to hundreds of bidders who all wanted a piece of a place that had made a lasting impression on their lives.

In 1953, fifty years after he and his brother stood perched on that hill overlooking Reading and imagined the possibilities, Gieringer told the story of his mother’s reaction to the brothers' pursuit of their odd dream and the clutter that went with it.

“She never complained of the chips on the floor. We lived in the poor section where there were all races and creeds and many delinquent children. Mother and Dad always said that children should be allowed to carry out their own ideas, for God only knows what good they can bring to mankind.”

For 85 years of educating and delighting families from all over the country it is clear that Gieringer did his family name well; he not only built a community, his dedication brought a little good to mankind.

It is comforting to know that a few hundred people across this country have a piece of Roadside America in their homes to share with their families and their friends, and maybe there are two little brothers looking at those models and thinking it might be a good idea to start their own Fairfield, Sleepy Hollow or Beaver Creek villages.

What began with two brothers looking down from Mt. Penn at the town of Reading and thinking it looked like a “miniature toy village“ in 1906 eventually became “Roadside America,“ an 8,000-square ft miniature display of American life located on old US Route 22 in Berks County. The beloved roadside oddity closed in November after 85 years.

(Courtesy photo)

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Tags: Pennsylvania, American history

Original Author: Salena Zito

Original Location: Roadside America: a cultural treasure fell victim to COVID restrictions

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