I’m willing to bet that if you say the words “Roadside America” to a Lehigh Valley native, most will think one of three things:
1) The place you went when you were a kid and saw all the trains.
2) The place billed as the “World’s Greatest Indoor Miniature Village.”
3) The place you’ve taken your kids or grandkids to for a great local destination drive.
I fall into the first group—I still have vivid memories of visiting when I was young and being utterly amazed. It was like entering another world. The great thing about Roadside America is that it really is like rewinding the clock—when you go, you’ll be transported back to a kinder, simpler time.
Featured in well-known guidebooks such as Weird Pennsylvania and the amusingly named 1,000 Places to See in the USA and Canada Before You Die, Roadside America provides an impressive landscape of life in the United States from the earliest settlers up through the mid-20th century. It features working model railroads and trolleys, buildings with lights and sounds, and even moving waterways. Displays bring these to life through meticulous installations, all of which were part of the creative vision of the founder, Laurence Gieringer.
Roadside America, which opened in 1935 and has been at its current location off Route 78 in Shartlesville since 1953, is and continues to be a family-run affair. Gieringer’s granddaughter, Dolores Heinsohn, is the current owner, and she runs it with her husband and her two children (Laurence’s great-grandchildren).
Brian Hilbert, husband of one of Laurence’s great-granddaughters, is the manager. “We have a small and great group of people committed to keeping the displays running and covering the expenses. One of our longtime employees has been with us for decades and remembers when Laurence was here,” Hilbert says.
Roadside America, now in its 82nd year, continues to please customers from generation to generation. Even to this day, with competition from a multitude of places, thousands of people visit every year and are wowed by the amazing landscapes that include many local landmarks.
“We had 36,000 visitors in 2015 and about 38,000 in 2016, so our numbers are growing. What’s really neat is that our customers tell us that they make the trip here because their parents came here—it really is a generational thing,” Hilbert says. A fan favorite is the patriotic Night Pageant, where people can experience overhead twinkling stars and view the multimedia show, which runs twice hourly. They also have up to eight trains running, with three you can operate yourself with push-button controls, as well as a new audio tour.
One of the remarkable aspects of Roadside America is that is truly preserves the vision of its creator. While Hilbert said they get offers of train displays and other Americana-related items, they really don’t change anything. That’s because the installations are all original per the initial design. All of Laurence’s work, dating back to the turn of the 20th century, enables Roadside America to be a time capsule, more than anything else.“In many ways, it’s like stepping back in time,” he says. “The only updates that we do are because of necessity. Electrical upgrades, for example, are done for safety reasons, and we’ve had to update some of the trains due to
That doesn’t mean Roadside America doesn’t connect with the present day. Bethlehem native Daniel Roebuck, best known for his television roles in “Matlock” and “Lost” as well as the movies “The Fugitive” and “U.S. Marshals,” is currently producing the independent feature film “Getting Grace.” Roebuck is filming parts of the movie in the Lehigh Valley and remembered Roadside America because his character in the film is a train lover. Last December, a scene for the movie was shot on location.
If you’re a train enthusiast, have a passion for history and Americana, or want to take your friends or family for a memorable, nostalgic trip they’ll be sure to remember, I’d highly recommend visiting—or revisiting—Roadside America. You’ll be surprised at how much fun it can be, and you may even want to pick up a souvenir from the gift shop.
Maintaining and servicing over 6,000 square feet of displays is an ongoing job, done in support of and appreciating the dream Laurence Gieringer had since he was a child. One of the challenges Roadside America is experiencing is repairing its roof. Having been damaged over the last several years as well as experiencing natural wear and tear, Roadside America has been seeking donations to help repair and replace the roof through a GoFundMe campaign. Luckily the leaks have not yet gotten to the point of damaging any of the exhibits, but through the efforts and generosity of the public, by the time you read this article, it’s likely the repair work will have begun. Donations are still being gratefully accepted at gofundme.com/roadsideamerica.