The Sad Death of “Roadside America”

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

This is the story of Roadside America, “the world’s greatest indoor ‘miniature village,'” a family-run small business survived for 85 years and three generations, and died when the America it depicted died.[1]. First, I’ll describe the miniature village and how it came to be. Then, I’ll look at Roadside America as a business. I’ll conclude by looking at what happened to the America it depicted.

Roadside America began and ended as a regional tourist attraction; all the coverage of its failure and breakup were from Pennsylvania: Allentown Morning Call, Harrisburg Patriot-New, KYW (Philadelphia), Lehigh Valley Live, Reading Eagle, Sanatoga Post, WNEP (Scranton), and, further afield, the Philadelphia Inquirer. Roadside America’s home page is, for now, still up:

(This appeals to me as a model railroad fan, but the models have appeal in themselves, especially to those in the region.)

Roadside America, the Miniature Village

Wikipedia (sorry) gives a potted history:

Roadside America was an indoor miniature village and railway covering 8,000 square feet (740 m2), created by Laurence Gieringer in 1935. It was first displayed to the public in the home of Mr Laurence Gieringer in Hamburg, Pennsylvania. Word got out about the exciting miniature village after a story was published in the local newspapers, and due to its popularity, Mr. Gieringer moved the display to a recently closed local amusement park called Carsonia Park, where more people could come to see his spectacular miniature village. The display stayed there for a very short time, from 1938 to about 1940 when Mr. Geringer purchased land at the current site of Roadside America to build a larger display in order to accommodate the growing interest. In 1953 [1] the exhibit reopened at the current location, a former dance hall in Shartlesville, Pennsylvania, Exit 23 on Interstate 78, approximately 20 miles west of the Lehigh Valley.

Here is the story of Laurence Gieringer, Founder and model builder, from Penn Live, “‘They’re priceless to me’: As Roadside America’s miniatures go to auction, family focuses on memories“:

[Roadside America’s owner] Dolores Heinsohn, said that the models — painstakingly crafted over thousands of hours, spread across decades — began as a childhood hobby of her grandfather, Laurence Gieringer.

As he grew older and honed his skills, Gieringer began to craft everything to scale — 3/8th of an inch to one foot – and continued making models as a hobby on his off hours. It was a hobby that Gieringer would continue for all of his life, Dolores said…

“He would spend months and months and months on one building alone,” Dolores said, adding that he would occasionally take on commission work, or craft a model of a home or business he knew for friends . “And back in those days, they didn’t have model kits. He had to improvise and make his own tools for certain things. He made the molds for the metal wagon wheels and door frames. I have all of those things. They’re priceless to me.”

Like any model railroad, the buildngs went onto a layout — an 8.000 square foot one. From Discover Lehigh Valley, “Roadside America: The World’s Greatest Indoor Miniature Village“:

The 6,000-square-foot exhibit showed off a panorama of life in the rural United States. It spanned more than 200 years of history and included more than 300 small buildings, countless parked trains filling packed train yards and nine fully-operational railroads. Visitors were able to control three of the railroads with the push of a button, and other push buttons allowed them to control a plethora of animations, bringing the village to life. There also were real water-flowing waterways, hilltop fountains and a huge canyon waterfall.

(I love this stuff!) Roadside America is a lot like Disneyland, train and all, except at Disneyland you are inside the model, not outside it. You are controlling the model (democracy), as opposed to the model controlling you (Fascism). In fact, some decades ago, Disney considered buying Roadside America. The likeness extends to electronics-driven animation. From the Reading Eagle:

Mike Fatovic of Monroe County, who had been visiting Roadside America for 40 years, marveled at the scope and complexity of the basketball-court-sized display.

He recalled how you could push a button and make figures move, an early form of animation. And, how the lighting would turn the display from day into night.

“This was way ahead of its time,” said Fatovic, 61, who was bidding on a 19th-century hosiery mill reminiscent of many in Berks County. “It’s sad that it’s going away.”

(I love this stuff!!) Also, the light-show. Again from Discover Lehigh Valley:

One thing you can’t miss seeing before you leave is the night pageant. Every 30 minutes they methodically dim all of the lights in the rooms and, using the same methodology, they turn on each of the lights throughout the exhibit. The church lights go on, the train lights go on, and the plane flies high above all to the sound of patriotic music.

(I could do without the patriotic music, but I have very happy memories of running “the trains” round the layout in the dark, lights all aglow. American Flyer trains were big enough to make some noise, and they smelled of hot oil and electricity too. Terrific!)

But, as we saw, the miniatures went to auction. Why?

Roadside America, the Business

Why? A series of unfortunate events.

1) Location. Like many other Pennsylvania small towns, everything changed when the Interstate went through in 1957. From Philly Voice:

When it moved [to the current site[, the site could be accessed from Route 22.

But when the highway became Interstate 78, transportation officials fenced off access, forcing visitors to exit at Shartlesville and enter at the rear of the property.

Furthermore, there was no other reason for tourists to exit the Interstate at Shartlesville. From Classic Toy Trains:

think one of the challanges these days for them was the fact that there is nothing else nearby of similar interest.

Strasburg PA, where the Strasburg Rail Railroad is, has a long list of train and model train attractions, including the ChooChoo Barn. A display similar to Roadside America although not as large or elaberate, but very nice none the less.

2) Tourism dried up. Further, the nature of tourism itself changed. KYW quotes Heinsohn:

The times were getting tough, you didn’t have the buses, you didn’t have people traveling. The culture has changed, everything was changing.

And Heinsohn in the Inquirer (actual reporters from multiple local papers were all over this story; amazing, in this day and age):

Heinsohn said about 100,000 customers paid to enter Roadside America each year, though attendance had tapered off in recent years. She said the visitors were mostly older, people who would come and sit, to watch the sun set and rise on the world her grandfather built.

Admission was $6.95. Do the math: ~$700,000 a year is ~$60,000 a month. That’s not a lot of money, with heating and electric, taxes, and a staff of four, even family (and the gift shop wouldn’t make up for it).

3) Lack of capital. With revenues falling, maintenance is the first to go. Classic Toy Trains:

[I]t was going downhill over the past few years. Last few times I went, there were fewer trains running, lots of broken displays and it was a bit rundown. I wish someone could have purchased and upgraded things, while keeping the historic value.

Then the roof starts to go. Lehigh Marketplace:

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.

Next, the Kickstarter to save the business. Philly Voice:

In 2018, employees at the attraction launched a Kickstarter to purchase, renovate and relocate the “world’s greatest miniature village.” It had been placed for sale by the owners around that time. The project raised more than $10,000, but fell far short of its longshot $750,000 goal.

4) Covid. All the business is doing is moving cash in a circle. The family tries to sell the business. Then Covid delivers the coup de grace. Lehigh Valley Live:

Owners said when Roadside America, 109 Roadside Drive and off Interstate 78, was forced to shut down in March when Gov. Tom Wolf ordered the closure of all non-essential businesses, they remained hopeful a buyer would come forward and commit. As the months passed, the future remained uncertain, the posting stated.

But why wouldn’t buyers commit?

5) They’d rather die than change.

The family — very much unlike Walt Disney, bless his heart — seemed to view the “miniature village” as a shrine, rather than a business. From Roadside America’s website:

It has been our honor to care for Laurence’s meticulously handcrafted landscape, and to share our family’s history with so many people.

From Lehigh Valley Marketplace:

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.

Hence, the family placed conditions on the sale that made the business unsaleable. From Roadtripper’s magazine, “Roadside America’s idealized miniature version of the U.S. is for sale—but there are conditions“:

The classic attraction has remained virtually unchanged over the years and under the stewardship of the same family since its inception. But nothing stays the same forever and Roadside America is currently for sale—with the stipulation that any interested party agrees to keep the attraction exactly as it is, and has been since 1953.

The alternative was to sell the property (asking price: $2.295 million; sale price: $1.4 million) and auction the miniatures, and that is what the family did.

* * *

To me, this is a story not worthy of Steinbeck, but Balzac. Heinsohn describes how the grim process of inexorable business failure felt to her. From the Allentown Morning Call:

Q: What was it like making this decision?

A: Extremely difficult. There are no words to completely describe what it feels like, but perhaps the simplest analogy is a game of chess. In the beginning, there are lots of pieces in play, each piece carrying its own advantages and consequences. With each turn, you need to decide which moves to take, always trying to predict and anticipate potential pitfalls. Eventually you start to run out of moves and, in the end, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. That’s business in a nutshell, in my opinion, but with 100 times more variables and emotions.

We’ve made a lot of moves in 85 years, and enjoyed a lot of wins; so even though our story is ending, we hope that we’ve inspired others to create their own. It always warms our hearts to hear from the people who truly appreciated the “miniature empire” that Laurence built, and we’re choosing to focus on those positive stories.

I have the feeling the many Pennsylvanians have run out of moves, and all would love to focus on positive stories, but some are more able to than others.

Roadside America, the Metaphor

The Americana — and the America — that has been changed. Or lost.

1) The style of model railroading. From Classic Toy Trains:

We visited Roadside America a few times and found it to present model railroading as it was done in the past. There is nothing else like that exhibit anywhere as it is not only an artful creation it represents a period of history like a priceless antique. It is very sad that it is going away.

For those who follow or practice model railroading, this is evident from the layout. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find this photo again, but it shows a man actually standing on one of the layout’s roads (right next to the church). Today’s layouts use a lot of styrofoam to make scenery; you don’t stand on them. Not to say it’s not a great layout, it is; but it’s very much of its time.

2) The craft of model making. Requoting Heinsohn on Gieringer once again:

[T[hey didn’t have model kits. He had to improvise and make his own tools for certain things. He made the molds for the metal wagon wheels and door frames. I have all of those things. They’re priceless to me

Gieringer actually made the machine tools for his miniature village. There’s not a lot of that going on these days (though as a Luddite, I don’t classify 3D printing as tooling).

3) The village buildings. These were dispersed to the locals, who loved them. From the Reading Eagle:

Berks County landmarks were a favorite of bidders.

The bid on Long’s ESSO Service Center on Route 61 north of Reading was $1,325. The old Berks County Courthouse at Fifth and Penn streets was going for $960, and Yellow House Hotel had a bid of $820. The old Kauffman’s furniture store on Penn Street had a bid of $725.

The country club in Fairfield, Gieringer’s vision of small town America, had a bid of $1,025 and the town’s baseball diamond was at $520.

4) The village itself.. I’ve helpfully annotated the first image I posted, from the Roadside America site:

If the layout had been kept current, everything labeled would be gone, turned into vacant lots or abandoned buildings, as Pennsylvania was deindustrialized in the second half of Roadside American’s life. And the people who remember what Pennsylvania used to be are aging out.


I loved the description of the old codgers like me who would “watch the sun set and rise on the world her grandfather built.” Except it’s really rise and set, isn’t it? Perhaps we need a new model.


[1] This is the “Roadside America” at, not “Roadside America: Your Online Guide to Offbeat Tourist Attractions” at, although Roadside America is was indeed an “offbeat tourist attraction.” The failure to grab the *.com URL for their own business name says something about ithe state of the firm in its final years.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. fresno dan

    (I love this stuff!!)
    Me Too!!!
    I was watching the movie Two Men in Manhattan – 1959 or so – the clothes, the cars, and something I had not thought of in years – FLASH bulbs! I dare you to explain a flash bulb to a 10 year old…

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      The little flash in disposable cameras might be a useful demonstration to help the explanation along. Just say the Flash Bulbs were bigger and they were shaped more like ” big round flashlight bulbs, but bigger and rounder”.

  2. divadab

    Thanks, Lambert, for documenting this sad tale. A model of America, if you will. The rise and decay of the fossil fuel economy, sustained at the start by long-term cultural creativity and hard work and then inexorably destroyed by the evil that the fossil fuel economy is. And, incidentally, destroying much of the culture of creativity and hard work that made it possible.

    A little prayer:

    I am a sinner in a system not of my control. Forgive me Mother Earth for disrespecting the living web that sustains us. Help me to live in ways that increase living diversity and biomass and respect all of our relations – plants, animals, fungae – all living. Thank you for the miracle of life, in the name of the One, the Source, the All.

  3. malchats

    When I was still living in the Bay Area, I used to enjoy visits to the Walnut Creek Model Railroad Society layout, in Larkey Park in Walnut Creek. The layout described in the piece above sounds similar to what the WCMRS has. The club had (before the pandemic) an open house once a month, typically last Friday of the month, where you could go in for a few bucks and watch the trains operate. Multiple trains running on multiple lines, lots of good vantage points, and hey too would do the “sun setting and sun rising” bit. If you’re into model railroads, and in the Bay Area, I strongly recommend checking it out, once the public shows are back running again.

    Since moving up to Oregon (Tillamook coast, about an hour or so from Portland), I’ve been hoping to find someplace similar around here, but no such luck.

  4. freebird

    Appreciators of great miniature villages/trains/etc may want to put the opus on display at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota on their bucket list.

  5. JBird4049

    Fewer people remember. Fewer people then realize what has been lost. What was lost is declared a fantasy. My memories are not real. And so nothing changes. Except for it getting even worse.

    The image of America in my head, which comes from my childhood, clashes so much the America of today it is actually mentally painful. Yet, I am not that old. Not the changes in fashion or the different stuff we now have, but the little things like being able to go anywhere without seeing a scanner or people with guns and clubs. The ability to just go to school or college without worrying about how to pay for it. Walking down a street or driving the freeway without seeing people in boxes or modern mini Hoovervilles.

    No factories. No jobs really. At least none that paid well and that you would want to do for life. Maybe if you are hooked into the social circles of the 10% No brick and motor stores. None of the little bookstores, hardware, clothing, pharmacies, restaurants, bars, clubs, stationary stores, and on and on. There are some stores remaining but really it’s depressing to see the empty spots. Like dead trees in a dying forest. Most of it was gone before COVID. This by the way is in the San Francisco Bay Area. Now a famous theme park. When (if) we ever get rid of it I fear what I will see that is left of the leftovers.

    We really are ****** aren’t we?

    1. Wukchumni

      I dunno, my world is the exact opposite of a miniature village here in the land of the giants, where you can glimpse hundreds of Sequoia trees without leaving your car in the largest venue-the Giant Forest grove, versus about 8,000 if you walk. This is just one of about 75 groves on the western slope of the Sierra.

      Aside from the entrance fee to get into Sequoia NP, the cost to visit any tree you’d like is free. Unlike say an old master (one just sold for $92 million @ auction) these old masters have no price tag on them, we all own them.

      Upkeep is up to Mother Nature, and there’s scant worry about an interstate coming through and cutting off access.

    2. Huey Long

      Your comment really struck a nerve. I’m not terribly old myself, not even 40 and my memories match yours.

      The factories have all gone one by one, the jobs with them. Either demolished or turned into chic condos.

      We used to have 2 hardware stores in town and a small home center or two in adjacent towns. Now we have Home Depot and Lowe’s.

      Even the white collar guys work like slaves now, until they’re laid off in their mid 50’s that is.

      The rest of us are slowly “running out of moves,” inching along the downward spiral towards the bottom, being an Amazonian on food stamps living in our cars. Maybe taking a second job at McDonald’s if we want some free food and an upgrade to a seedy room in some slum.

    3. cnchal

      > No factories. No jobs really. At least none that paid well and that you would want to do for life.

      What factory jawbs were when one started working, say forty years ago and what they are today are two different worlds. Even the jawbs here can push the human physical limits in the quest for productivity these days, so not a jawb for life anymore, unless one is OK with becoming crippled.

      Your point is dead on. There is a lack of opportunity for gainful employment, which the closing of countless small to medium sized business has precipitated.

      This leads directly to young men getting into trouble, and finding themselves working in a chicken processing plant where “The hours are long, the pay is none and the conditions are brutal”.

      There is a price paid for cheap chicken nuggets, and the ones doing the eating are not even close to paying it.

      Working conditions are becoming brutal everywhere now. That Amazon abuses it’s workers and gets away with it means every other entity has to match the brutality to keep up. A Greshams dynamic writ large.

  6. JBird4049

    Fewer people remember. Fewer people then realize what has been lost. What was lost is declared a fantasy. My memories are not real. And so nothing changes. Except for it getting even worse.

    The image of America in my head, which comes from my childhood, clashes so much the America of today it is actually mentally painful. Yet, I am not that old. Not the changes in fashion or the different stuff we now have, but the little things like being able to go anywhere without seeing a scanner or people with guns and clubs. The ability to just go to school or college without worrying about how to pay for it. Walking down a street or driving the freeway without seeing people in boxes or modern mini Hoovervilles. No factories. No jobs really. At least none that paid well and that you would want to do for life. Maybe if you are hooked into the social circles of the 10% No brick and motor stores. None of the little bookstores, hardware, clothing, pharmacies, restaurants, bars, clubs, stationary stores, and on and on. There are some stores remaining but really it’s depressing to see the empty spots. Like dead trees in a dying forest. Most of it was gone before COVID. This by the way is in the San Francisco Bay Area. Now a famous theme park. When (if) we ever get rid of it I fear what I will see that is left of the leftovers.

    We really are ****** aren’t we?

    1. Flo

      ‘Bird. Marin County is the closest thing to the good things you miss in your last paragraph.
      Overwhelmingly natural.
      Very non diverse however, if that concerns you.

  7. MK

    My grandfather took me in the mid 80s, I was 10.

    The sun set outside, but the lights then came on inside, why I think it was worded that way.

    I’m hoping to take my kids on historic route 66 once covid times have passed.

    1. ObjectiveFunction

      But Germany is a country that still has a functioning civil state, and a shared sense of volk (yes, with all that implies).

      In contrast, America’s ‘reinvented’, outsourced, low- tax rump institutions no longer see their role to preserve such things. In any case, if users won’t pay for this heritage good, then it must be so that it has no value. The people have spoken.

      Nor is there any longer a cultural mandate to preserve it. Educating the young? Are you kidding? everybody knows ‘heritage’ is just a dog whistle for white supremacy. I mean, do you see any people of color in this diorama?

      And sooooo boooooooring! whine the teens, rolling their (still largely blue) eyes and returning to their TikTok scrolling.

      When the visionary dreams set hard and grey
      As flesh made into stone
      You tore the statues to the ground
      Crying let our people go
      And now they’re gone
      All is gone
      But these changing winds can blow cold and hostile

      (New Model Army)

      1. JBird4049

        The people have spoken

        I’m thinking that some people with money, resources, and time used a lot of it to break things up and not because 300 million people decided to burn it all down. Don’t know who. It was probably several individuals, groups, and social/economic changes that are ultimately responsible for all this disintegration, but seeing the CIA’s COINTELPRO or the Koch Family multigenerational efforts, or ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) it is not nuttiness to think this possible.

        Although the scale of it is certainly not what was wanted unless there are some people who want to live in the growing dystopian hellscape? I think that it was tunnel vision.

      2. KFritz

        Germany is also a country (like much of Europe, and Japan, and China, and India) where railroads are important mass transit–an integral part of the warp and woof of the culture. Unlike most of the U.S.

  8. roxan

    Things went downhill around here pretty rapidly after 2008. Phila started looking quite ragged, with the fIne stores around Rittenhouse Square replaced by cheap ghetto-type stores. Likewise, the eclectic mix of stores on South Street left, and so on. The city seems doomed to be another, less interesting, Detroit now that much is boarded up since Covid and the ‘peaceful riots.’ Never expected to see this….

  9. Angie Neer

    Thanks for the article, Lambert; fascinating. I’m a bit surprised, and disappointed, I never heard of it back when I used to visit relatives in that part of the world.

    This reminds me very much of an attraction I love in Victoria, BC, called Miniature World ( It, too, has the look of a bygone era, though more like the 1960’s. It has a “futuristic” section very much in the style of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It also looks like a maintenance nightmare and during my visits I’ve always wondered how long they can keep it going. But unlike Roadside America, it doesn’t have to worry about the highway moving, because it’s in an absolutely prime location, next to the harbor by which most tourists arrive. Though that probably means their rent is astronomical!

  10. a fax machine

    The issue with such an asset is that, unlike a garden railroad, the maintence requirements are so much higher. It really is a product of it’s era – the layout is big enough to occupy the space it does but is still smaller than a rugged and explicitly weather-resistant setup. Modern G/O scale standards create a situation where the owner can place and care for track just as a real railroad would; and by that I mean letting it weather a bit because trains (can) have onboard power and remote controls. This obviously did not exist in 1935 and barely existed in 1955. Locomotives/rolling stock are given insulated sheds so their parts don’t fall out of repair, for modern “big” size units the issue is more dust or animals than water. Higher end ones are made out of steel and thus can be heated/deiced using actual RR equipment (torches and alcohol). Outdoor scenery is made out of the same plastic (or if you fancy wood or metal) fences are and tend to survive. There’s still people who build little worlds like this, and have it be removed for pools and car parking as soon as they pass. All of this is more relevant than the styrofoam.

    Styrofoam use largely depends on what’s being built and overall dimensions. Notice how modern indoor model railroads tend to use modular pieces, this is intentional since it allows for reuse and easy storage in case the garage is needed. It also allows the entire thing to be easily sold, foam makes this job vastly easier because it’s lightweight and durable. Older materials like plaster is brittle although it is slightly more weather resistant. This makes the job of selling grandpa’s toys easier for his children, since few people appreciate the idea of an estate beyond the financial considerations. You’d be surprised at the number of people who trash real history because they thought it was somehow a model train toy thing and not a real RR operations handbook or lantern. The same goes for other things such as firearms or written letters, all trash to most. To be fair, the Internet and Ebay/Craigslist’s rise has abated this somewhat.

    The past as a concept has no meaning to people whose history began when they got the iphone. Nothing matters before 2010 and nothing matters if it doesn’t have a well-written Wikipedia lede or Twitter post. Since the auto industry is far better at advertising itself, people can’t conceive of a situation where trains were ever viable and start denying their existence – we can see this in certain parts of Central California. Many don’t realize that a road or dirtbike trail they enjoy used to be a railroad ROW. And the same for nuclear power – most of the people who live in the new Sacramento suburbs forgot about the NPP that used to sit next to them.

  11. JacobiteInTraining

    Not quite as fancy, but similar ethos – family run, large old property, totally quirky and esoteric…Iron Horse Railway, pony rides, ducks and chickens milling around the pond and water features here and there, unique architecture….weird stores, normal stores, and most of all — had been there since 1985 or so.

    As is the case with these places…the rural area it once was in the 80’s was filled up with tech and other jobs, suburbia creeps…advances, and soon surrounds, property tax goes up –and ya cant blame the owners for selling once the taxes outweigh the profits:

    Sometimes places are able to do a public/private partnership thing, or will property/farms/etc to a city or county in order to keep some semblance of the thing going for the future. Mostly not, just grow houses and condos.

    I wish I could find a link to it but there was an editiorial cartoon from the 60’s or 70’s I once saw in the New Yorker magazine or somesuch. Old man, old woman…rocking chairs, on farmhouse porch. On the horizon were construction equipment and the shells of houses cresting the ridge.

    Says the old man: “Quick, Ma, get yer gun…here come the suburbs!…”

    1. a fax machine

      I can’t help but mention a similar setup near myself: the Burke Junction Shopping Center adjacent Highway 50 outside Sacramento, which has only survived thus far due to the Goodwill inside being declared essential. It includes a small narrow-gauge train running around the premises of the property, vaguely similar to how Disney imagined Disneyland Park (back when the concept was an actual park, and not an Amusement Park). On the subject of sprawl, the real abandoned railroad about a mile to the south is absolutely going to be redeveloped before the mid-century as Sacramento sprawls east. Already light rail trains go to the base of the hills, and the original (full size) right-of-way exists as far as Placerville and is in good shape. Good shape because all the pasture in front of it has been turned into about ~50,000 new condos and strip malls. The place where me and my friends would hang out after school, the old hog paddock, had it’s dusty road replaced for a 4-lane expressway. This is all going to be homes over the next decade.

      In another world, I like to think that the railroad would have been kept alive all along used as the basis for development instead of the roads. Instead, the government is only going to entertain it as a solution long after sprawl becomes permanent and congestion inconceivably bad. Which is how it went everywhere else in the state.

  12. The Rev Kev

    It’s a pity that room cannot be found for it in a place like the Smithsonian. But it would be a huge area that it would need for a museum. Of course that could lead to a lot of awkward questions as adults have to explain to kids what they are actually seeing and that it is not like a Lego construct i.e. fantasy.

    In some places in America there are reconstructed Wild West towns which act as tourist attractions and were quite popular before the present pandemic. Will it turn out that by the end of this century, that as tourist attractions you will have reconstructed towns from about 1900s America? I have read descriptions of some of them and know enough to know how much things have changed since then.

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      the little town in my county is a living antique like you describe…but the only policy involved is the town fathers disallowing walmart/sonic/mcdonalds.
      there’s zoning ordinances for the ‘historical district”, but that mainly effects people who own the houses…limits what colors they can pain their door, etc.
      people who come here for the deer hunting or whatever are as one “oh, how quaint!”…but luckily…and so far(!)…we are too far away from civilisation to worry just yet about encroachment.
      handful of nuvea riche people have bought distressed legacy ranches over the last 15 years or so…but to move here, you have to either have $$, or be willing to make do.

      contrast this place with where i grew up, far northern exurban houston(magnolia/tomball)
      40 years ago, it was much like this place…30 minutes to get to a store that had milk…zero traffic after sunset, etc
      now, it’s all subdivisions and overpasses and gigantic prison-like high schools and a zillion strip malls and box stores.
      the woods i used to run in are spiderwebbed with concrete culdesacs and tract homes, growing the next generation of failsons and larpy terrists.
      FM1488 is the New FM1960(for people who are familiar with the area—-and i remember when 1960 was “Jackrabbit Road”, and went to cows and nothing else,lol)
      when “ferriners” ask me what it’s like to live here, i say “oh…you don’t want to live here…”.
      “call some place paradise, and kiss it goodbye”(“Last Resort”, Eagles)

  13. Lambert Strether Post author

    I’m surprised nobody has mentioned the trains at the Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry; we used to go there regularly. The locomotives in the first version (from the 30s? It has since been remodeled) were, I believe, constructed by Minton Cronkite, the first to really craft loomotives to scale (unlike Lionel, American Flyer, etc.) Today’s detail wasn’t there — no manufacturers in China — but the proportions, the weight, and the sense of brute power were present.

  14. a different chris

    Auction Link:

    Per Rev Kev above, we have the worst of both worlds. The Smithsonian can’t have done that, or at least not without a decade or so of warning to get all the paperwork done.

    We have plenty of billionaires who could have just bought the place, fixed the roof and not even noticed the cost, but they aren’t gonna do that because billionaires. Honestly if I was a financial advisor to somesuch I would always be doing things like that and burying them on one spreadsheet or another.

  15. Valiant Johnson

    Another roadside attraction bites the dust.
    My family lives in one, The Desert View Tower.
    The place was built in 1924.
    The freeway past us bye in 1967.
    Enough locals still come to keep us afloat (barely).
    If we didn’t have our Social Security money, I don’t know what we would do.
    Here’s our catch 22, if we were to sell the place for the amount needed to keep us going for retirement, the land tax burden on the new owners would make it impossible to stay in business.
    The only people showing any interest are wealthy and would want to turn it into a private facility.
    Then what would I say to the family that came yesterday to spread the ashes of their father who came here as as a child, brought his children and his grandchildren.
    “Sorry a rich guy bought the place, you can’t come here anymore.”
    F— that, we will keep it open.

  16. Hutch

    Thanks for this, Lambert. My son, who still lives in Allentown, PA, told me about Roadside America’s closing last March. We used to take him to see the attraction every year when he was a child. I remember him weeping almost every time they performed the light show, even though he was six or seven and had no memory of the post-war, small town industrial era depicted by the layout. We were all sad to learn it had closed.

  17. Phacops

    Roadside America and Roadside America. I enjoy both as a celebration of their maker’s idiosyncratic vision. Whether it is the formal modeling of Roadside America in Pennsylvania, or the result of some inner vision like the Dickyville Grotto in Wisconsin, I am entranced by them all. We seem to have become so influenced by an entertainment industry that road trips have been replaced by a mad dash on expressways to some branded destination. Yet, America remains filled with the fascinating, whether it is our natural history or created by an inspired imagination, that our mass entertainment cannot match

    I am of the mind to take my little car along our blue highways as suggested by another commenter. For those interested in Roadside America, there is the collection of John Margolies photographs from the Library of Congress

    1. Susan the other

      I used to want to go on a tour of all the little towns that time forgot. I told a friend and she said, But where are they? My guess was on/near state highways – obviously not the interstate. But I was always too lazy to do it. Had I been a photographer I’d have gone looking for all the Ansel Adams photo ops in in the west – in black and white. But I was too lazy to do that too.

  18. GF

    We’ve been plowing our way through the Fran Lebowitz Netflix series “Pretend It’s a City” (About her experiences living in NYC) and in some of the episodes she walks through a miniature version of NYC. It isn’t mentioned where the huge model is located but it is surreal watching her walk up the Hudson/East river as she tries to locate the building where she grew up.

  19. McWatt

    In the 60’s 70’s and 80’s I drove across America multiple times. It was so much fun going from region to region hearing the different accents, eating the local foods, seeing the local sites. Small town America was still intact then.

    We were in Death Valley last March when covid struck and decided to drive home to Chicago rather than fly. And we decided to take the side roads rather than the expressways to avoid as many people as possible.

    What an eye opener. There is nothing left of small town America. They are ghost towns. The things we saw still haunt me.

  20. Arizona Slim

    I am a born-and-raised Pennsylvanian who now lives Out West.

    At no time to did I — or anyone I knew — ever make a trip to Roadside America. Matter of fact, I never heard of this place until the NC post.

    I can recall that my friends and I would have been bored to tears at a place like Roadside America. And I’m talking about the 1960s and 1970s. Even then, a model railroad display just wasn’t our thing.

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