But perhaps the greatest attraction in Eastern PA, and possibly one of the best things ever created, may be found right on I-76 in Shartlesville. Next to an Amish-themed gift shop and a dicey-looking restaurant sits Roadside America, the world's largest miniature village. The sign on the building makes several claims of its own to the potential visitor:
"Worlds Greatest Indoor MINIATURE VILLAGE"
"RECOMMENDED IN A.A.A. PUBLICATION"
"BE PREPARED TO SEE MORE THAN YOU EXPECT"
I cannot argue with any of those claims. It is amazing.
It's too much to take in with one massive picture, so I took plenty. You're going to want to click and enlarge all of these pictures to get an idea of the detail and scale.Roadside America was built by Laurence Gieringer, a carpenter and painter, from the early 1930s through 1963, the year he died. He had a lifelong love of models, driven by views of local towns from atop a mountain. The models haven't been altered or moved since his death, and apparently aren't touched apart from cleaning and small bits of maintenance. Gieringer really should be a patron saint of sorts for makers the world over. He made so many things, mostly by hand, for no other reason than he loved doing it and sharing with others. He was consistently building for decades and, in the end, made something amazing. I mean, it's incredibly impressive now but can you imagine how mind-blowing this was during the Roosevelt administration? These trains have been running since before the World War 2, before the civil rights act, possibly before your grandparents were born. The official site for Roadside America has more information on the history, including some incredible pictures and video that detail how all of this was made.
The aforementioned caves are viewable in cross-section down two steps and under a curtain. One of the best things about Roadside America is finding little dramas and situations like this woman in a yellow dress, all alone, admiring a cavern.
A lot could be written about the version of America painted by Roadside America. It was an idealized portrait, even in its time. It's a self-sustaining countryside of happy farms, non-polluting factories with fulfilled workers, and pleasantly rustic coal mines. There is a car in every driveway and every suburban development is pristine and populated with friendly people. Every small town bustles with growth and activity. There is a church in every hamlet, and God himself looks over his creation alongside the Statue of Liberty and the flag. No, really. Every 20 minutes or so, the bulbs dim and the visitor is treated to a night-time pageant. The lights grow pink, then blue, and then go out. The windows in the towns below light up. And then Jesus appears.
Like countless other displays of this uniquely American mythology, it rides the lines between "Wait, are they serious?"-level kitschyness, liturgical observance, and honest to goodness inspiration. If you want to see the past (and indeed, the ideal future) through the minds of American cultural conservatives, you need look no further. A large part of my country fetishizes this very specific ideal time and place. To this day you can readily hear talk of "small town" or "traditional" values, as if rural areas of a specific period had access to some great secret store of goodness. History tells a far more complicated story, but then history is rarely what we want it to be.
That isn't to say that Roadside America is itself politicized in any meaningful way - I honestly don't think it is. It merely reflects the ideas of its time, and the issues of today were not the issues of Gieringer's time. The way in which native Americans are treated is a prime example of this.
True to early 20th century culture, Indians are depicted as wise, noble savage forebears who were the custodians of the land (until we were ready to have it, of course). Also true to the times, they are simultaneously depicted as regular, non-noble savages in thrilling combat with settlers and cowboys.
The native American portions of the exhibit are crammed into the back corners, with strangely out of place life-sized statues kneeling, solemnly looking out over an America rendered painstakingly in miniature. Like all of the other life-sized people who now peer over this smaller vision of the country, they have no place there.