“It is with heavy hearts that we announce the permanent closure of Roadside America after 85 years of business.”

So began the November 21, 2020, Facebook announcement that Roadside America, the miniature village and model railway that was a legendary family road trip must-see along Pennsylvania’s Interstate 78 for generations, was closing its doors forever.  

After years of dwindling visitors, Dolores Heinsohn, granddaughter of Roadside America’s creator, Laurence Gieringer, found it was becoming more financially difficult to keep the attraction maintained than the she and the rest of the Gieringer family could handle. As a result, they put the iconic roadside stop up for sale in 2018, hoping that whoever bought it would be able to keep it up and running.

Dolores Heinsohn, granddaughter of Roadside America’s creator, Laurence Gieringer, with her father Walter Bernecker as they watch a Pennsylvania Barn Dance, just one of the hundreds of displays you could find at Roadside America.

Though they did have a couple of potential buyers come in with big ideas for the attraction, none of the plans came to fruition. Then, like so many irreplaceable people and places we lost in 2020, Roadside America fell victim to COVID-19, temporally closing its doors as a non-essential business in March of last year.

However, as the months of closure dragged on, Ms. Heinsohn and her family saw that they would never be able to fully recover from the monetary loss caused by the global pandemic. With no potential buyers coming forward, they announced the family’s painstaking decision to auction off the many miniature buildings, people and model trains that made up the 8,000 square foot exhibit. The doors to Roadside America would then be closed forever after.

It Took One Man to Build a Village

As the official story goes, and one told often in the countless Roadside America brochures printed throughout the years, young Laurence Gieringer and his brother, Paul, once climbed up to the top of Mount Penn. As they looked down in wonder and amazement at the miniature-like city of Reading below them, nine-year-old Laurence said to his brother, “Say, Paul, wouldn’t it be swell to make little houses the way they appear from here? Future generations could see how things are now!”  Paul agreed.

How the town of Reading must have looked to nine-year-old Laurence and his brother Paul as they looked down upon the town from Mt. Penn.

They told their parents about the idea once they got back home, and seeing how enthusiastic they were about it, their father built them a little workbench in the family’s basement and even gave them some tools to start their new hobby with.  Over time, they got better and better at their craft; however, Paul would eventually grow up and move away, leaving Laurence alone in crafting his beautiful buildings. Nevertheless, by the time he was 14, Laurence had gotten so good at building miniatures, he would later include some of them in his Roadside America attraction.

Laurence Gieringer

Laurence would continue his hobby even after he had grown and gotten married. Soon, word got around about his miniature village that he displayed in his living room, and people would come from miles around to see it. However, it would soon outgrow the Gieringer’s house, so with his wife Dora’s support and encouragement, he moved the display to the recently defunct Carsonia Park amusement park in 1938;  still, two years later, Gieringer found his display was outgrowing the amusement park, too and would eventually buy an old dance hall in Shartlesville, Pennsylvania, located on what was then old U.S. Route 22 and convert it into what he called “Roadside America”. The soon-to-be legendary roadside attraction that billed itself as “The World’s Greatest Indoor Miniature Village” opened its doors to locals and tourists alike in 1953.

Laurence busy at work on Roadside America.

Taken By Surprises

Traveling down I-78 through Shartlesville, it was hard to miss Amos and Anna, the giant waving Amish couple that welcomed everybody to Roadside America.

Amos and Anna

As you entered the building and paid your admission, there was a sign above the entrance to the display that read:

“Who enters here will be taken by surprises  ͠

Be prepared to see more than you expect.”

And, indeed, there were surprises and much more than you could expect.

There were hundreds of buildings – churches, farms, stores, diners and movie theaters. There were mountains and waterfalls and caves.  There were covered wagons, cars and canoes, tractors, trucks and trains.

And there were people, over 4,000 of them to be exact ranging from pioneers and policemen to carpenters and construction workers to cowboys and cavemen. There were kids at the circus, kids at  the candy store and kids on the playground.  

Roadside America was also interactive. There were buttons to push to make the windmill spin, the steam roller roll and the organ grinder play music. You controlled the cable car and how much oil he refinery produced and so much more.

Best of all, there was just so much to see!

As many visitors often said, “You can go around this place ten times and see something different each time around.” You could also see it from three different levels – ground to mountaintop and even a level in between. You could even go underneath the exhibit and visit Endless Caverns.

The detail was amazing even down to the wheelbarrow man at the zoo!

You also traveled through time as Pennsylvania’s early settlers greeted you on your way in and you passed streets and buildings of years gone by on your way around to the waterfalls where the dinosaurs still lived.

And speaking of time, every half hour, night would fall on the world’s greatest indoor village and the miniature world inside would light up and reveal even more secrets as you were serenaded by Kate Smith singing “God Bless America”.

Roadside America was, indeed, a truly a one-of-a-kind, big ol’ kitschy slice of Americana pie and will be sorely missed.

They Took a Village

By February 1, Roadside America was nearly all gone, auctioned off a little at a time to nearly 1,200 people who came from as far away as Texas to be there and take home a little souvenir to remember the place so near and dear to so many for so long.  The sign above the door went to a man whose grandfather had hand-painted it all those years ago. Amos and Anna went home with a man from Myerstown. Another couple went home with the Sleepy Hollow Jail while still another with a Roadside America “Wilkum” Amish hex sign.

Even Ms. Heinsohn saved a few things that held precious memories for herself including the Charles Gieringer Harness Shop. The real Charles Gieringer once had a harness shop in Reading on Penn Street. To Laurence Gieringer, it was his father the man who encouraged his son’s hobby of crafting a wonderland of miniatures that eventually led to Roadside America. He was also Dolores’ great-grandfather.

Perhaps, life is really like a trip around Laurence’s iconic roadside attraction. It’s all kind of comes full circle and although maybe we don’t quite see everything we could have seen, it sure is full of surprises.

Goodbye Roadside America. You sure were more than our memories could have ever expected.

This post written in fond memory of Mr. Laurence Gieringer and Roadside America from the thousands of families that you let into your imagination for over 85 years.

The Shartlesville Stuckey’s

Recognize that rooftop? Roadside America wasn’t the only iconic road trip destination off of the Shartlesville Exit (Exit 23) on Pennsylvania I-78. It was also the exit for the Shartlesville Stuckey’s. Unfortunately, it also recently closed and now sells auto accessories as the Chrome Palace.

However, until we start putting our Stuckey’s locations back in Pennsylvania, you can now get our world famous Stuckey’s pecan log rolls and other fine pecan candies delivered right to your front door – just in time for your next road trip!

And don’t forget, our branded Stuckey’s memorabilia like our retro-inspired t-shirts, caps and mugs always make great gifts and souvenirs, even if you’re just taking a trip down the information superhighway for now. Check out all of these things and more at stuckeys.com.

Unfortunately, Mr. Gieringer didn’t include any Stuckey’s replicas on his display. No problem, though. We’re pretty happy with the one Brad Moore made for us, anyway.

Stuckey’s – We’re Making Road Trips Fun Again!