Thursday, May 10, 2007
Roadside America is one of the best tourist traps in the United States. You can see the whole thing in about an hour, it has a great gift shop, the folks are friendly, and the price is reasonable. Located in Shartlesville, Pennsylvania, Roadside America is dedicated to Laurence Gieringer's desire to craft a miniature time capsule of his ideal America (circa 1890 to 1942), with railroads and fields and mountains that connect tiny villages, bountiful farms, and thriving towns. You’ll see tiny mills, small-town baseball fields, and even a terrific set of motel cabins: a tiny version of America in one huge air-conditioned enclosure.
(Photo by Andrew Wood)
The story of Roadside America is often told, but essential to understanding the place; it begins with a childhood fixation. One night when Laurence was five years old, he stared out his window, spotting a hotel on a far away hill. He was was entranced by the twinkling lights; it seemed like a toy he could reach out and grab. Little Laurence left his room and set off to find that toy, but he got lost in the woods. The ordeal terrified him, but even when searchers found him and returned him home the memory of that tantalizing vision stuck with the boy. Thereafter, he started building miniature buildings and towns, happily closer than that distant hotel. Once the local press discovered his creation, Laurence’s hobby got a bit out of hand. Roadside America is a legacy of an obsession that lasted for sixty years.
The details of Roadside America are its prime pleasures, and there are thousands of them. Some of my favorites: a little girl who stares pensively at an ice cream parlor. A sign reads: "What could she be thinking?" Then there's the house that has caught on fire, its walls burned to ruin. A sign instructs parents to warn their children about the dangers of fire. Finally, I can't help but laugh at the sign that simply said: "Press the button to operate donkeys" How many times do you get a chance to "operate" a donkey? If you're curious, the button causes the miniature beasts to turn their heads back and forth. The purpose of Roadside America is to entertain, of course, but Laurence Gieringer always wished that his roadside attraction would educate as well.
Make sure you stay for the "Night Pageant," an unapologetically religious reminder of Gieringer's belief that America is literally blessed by God. The lights dimmed while "stars" appear overhead. Religious music and slides segues to Kate Smith's rendition of "God Bless America," and then the lights return. It's all a bit goofy, maybe even tacky, but there's no doubt that Roadside America is heartfelt.