Segment from Finding Americana

Small Town America just got even smaller.

Roadside America has been entertaining drivers along Interstate 78 in Pennsylvania since the 1950s. But as scholar, and fan Samantha Boardman, and Dolores Heinsohn, granddaughter of founder Laurence T. Gieringer explain, there is more to this miniaturized vision of America than meets the eye.

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Brian Balogh: Now picture this scene. You’re driving along Interstate 78 in Pennsylvania and you find yourself intrigued by billboards advertising Roadside America, the world’s greatest indoor miniature village.
Of course, you pull off the road and that’s exactly what happened to Samantha Boardman.

Samantha: Years ago, I was a traveling performing singer songwriter and I did a lot of work in the Mid-Atlantic. I was on my way to a gig and had some time to kill before sound check and I kept seeing these billboards on I-78 for Roadside America.
All the billboards said “Be prepared to see more than you expect” and I was like, okay, I’ve got some time to kill. Show me more than I expect. I pulled off to this outwardly unassuming roadside attraction with no preconceived notions. I had not heard of this place before and I walked in, bought my ticket, walked into the room where the model is and was just stunned.
It was huge. It was just stirring. It was genuinely emotionally stirring.

Brian Balogh: Roadside America had been built by Lawrence T. Gerringer and it had been delighting motorists since the early 1950s with its unifying tiny vision of the U.S. It fascinated Samantha so much that unlike most visitors, she decided to write a Ph.D dissertation about it.

Samantha: What interested me so much is that it was an attraction that declared itself to be a portrayal of America and I thought that was really interesting and really bold and not necessarily something that you would get in a modern tourist attraction because you have this very diverse, polyglot, multiethnic, multiracial country and to stake a claim and say this is representation of America is … You’re playing with fire.

Brian Balogh: Is it fair to say that claiming to have an exhibit that portrays all of America would not have seemed bold or ridiculous in the early 1950s?

Samantha: This is what’s so interesting about this particular cultural moment when Roadside America, which had existed in various permutations since the 1930s. It started out as being kind of like one of those little scenes you would put under a Christmas tree.
Lawrence Gerringer, the guy that started it, started with an under tree display that grew so large that it became a local attraction and people would come to his house just to see this model that ended up taking over his living room.
Then it was displayed in different places through the 30s and 40s and then it eventually arrived at where it is today in 1953. In 1953, you have this confluence. You’ve got a couple things going on. It’s post World War II. You’ve got the highway construction with the interstate, highway active 56 and you also have an American heritage tourism boom where Americans were encouraged to see America first.
Rather than go to Europe and spend your tourism dollars there, to take in the local and domestic wonders. There’s this cultural moment when American heritage tourism sites are very desirable and you also have the nuts and bolts, you’re able to get to them.

Brian Balogh: You’re able to get to them which ironically is gonna flatten most of them, right? Those very interstate highways that allow you to get to these places more quickly, more conveniently are gonna [inaudible 00:28:29].
You can predict what you’re gonna see when you get off an exchange on any of these interstate highways today.

Samantha: Yes. You have this one singular cultural moment where you have these very different kinds of roadside attractions. It’s not all homogenized yet. You start to see some of the ways that communications enabled ideas to circulate more quickly.
At the same moment that you have Roadside America in Chartlesville in 1953, a competitor miniature American tourist attraction opens up just 50 miles down the road in Denver, Pennsylvania called America Wonderland.

Brian Balogh: Ooh.

Samantha: It was built by a gentleman named Adam S. Hawn and he’s got a story similar to Gerringer’s. He was also a model maker. He had had a local attraction called Mountainside Wonderland, something like that, before that he had exhibited but he creates this competitor miniature American tourist attraction less than an hour away.
Something I think is so interesting about this moment is that that was in operation until 1973. For 20 years, you have a market that can support two different miniature American tourist attractions in that kind of proximity to each other.

Brian Balogh: How were they different?

Samantha: They were quite different. They gave completely different views on American-ness and the American experience in some really interesting ways. Structurally, Roadside America, you walk in and the model itself fills an entire room. It’s massive. The way it’s designed, you walk around the model and you see these different scenes portrayed in miniature.
You have a modern American suburb, modern of course circa 1963. You’ve got kids playing ball in a baseball field. You have a circus practicing and then you have these vignettes from American history. You’ve got a frontier town, you’ve got an Old West town. There’s a model anthrocite mine because he extrapolated a lot of American-ness from sites that were close to him, like the town of Hamburg, Pennsylvania sort of fills in for the downtown section which is still a small town America.

Brian Balogh: The discovery of oil in Pennsylvania or did that not make it?

Samantha: Yeah, it’s there.

Brian Balogh: Great.

Samantha: The Titusville Well, that’s there. You’ve got these scenes of local pride but taken from that, it’s this idea that it stands in for a common American experience. You have the historical and the modern existing cheek by jowl on this model as you’re walking around which creates this sort of American cosmology that America is something that exists in an eternal now.
You also have this interactivity with it. People that were walking around could press buttons that activated things in the model. You press a button and two men are sawing a log and then you press another button and a trolley zips down a street.
The entire time, the model is alive with kinetic activity. There’s model trains that are zipping through it and there’s a waterfall and there’s running water that goes through it. Then, every 20 minutes, there’s the night pageant which is when the lights in the room where the model is dim and the lights inside the model come on and the Star Spangled Banner is played over a PA along with Kate Smythson “God Bless America” which images of Jesus are projected on the back wall next to a fluttering American flag.

Brian Balogh: If you had to pick a year that you would identify with each, what year does Roadside America really capture and what year does America Wonderland really capture?

Samantha: Roadside America was installed at its present location in 1953 and it was largely complete. There wasn’t a lot that was added after that. Gerringer dies in 1963. But I think what you get when you go to Roadside America is a very specific vision of a specific American moment rather than a year.
Because Gerringer passes in 1963, this is a moment that comes, it’s in his world, in his vision, there’s no Kennedy assassination, there’s no moon landing, there’s no Vietnam, there’s no women’s movement, there’s no 9/11. You do get a very unambiguously patriotic and affectionate vision of a shared American experience.
Then when America Wonderland opens in 1957, that’s the year of Sputnik and Little Rock, there’s already a great deal of anxiety in American culture, a great deal of Cold War anxiety.

Brian Balogh: Of course, if you were African American, you had good reason to be anxious even in the early 1950s. Is any of that reflected in Roadside America?

Samantha: I think something that’s interesting about Roadside America is that you do find, to a degree, suggestions of people. You would see, they’re not fully formed representations. They’re not detailed enough to see expressions.

Brian Balogh: I see.

Samantha: There’s a little kid who drops her ice cream cone and there’s a kitten licking at it. You have these vignettes but you don’t really see the personality.

Brian Balogh: Tell us how someone visiting Roadside America in the 1990s, you perhaps, what is your lasting image a couple days after actually going to Roadside America?

Samantha: I think I was and continue to be surprised at how emotionally resonate I found the experience, especially the night pageant. I was legitimately and unironically moved by the care and the time that this man had put into his singular vision and the great deal of affection that he felt for his country and the way that he was able to convey that so well. That’s what stuck with me.

Brian Balogh: Delores Heinson is the granddaughter of Roadside America’s founding father Lawrence T. Gerringer. I put a call in to her and found her, of course, in the gift shop.

Delores: He started in 1903. This is an honest to goodness true story ’cause I even have it on old ’78 records, told by my great-grandmother. They were underfoot in the kitchen and she shooed him out of the kitchen to get out and play and they climbed up on the side of the mountain overlooking Redding near the pagoda.
The two young boys hatched this idea to build buildings miniature, small buildings.

Brian Balogh: How old were they at the time?

Delores: My grandfather was nine. His brother probably was a little younger than nine. He might’ve been about eight. He went home all excited. They went home and they told their parents, that was my great grandparents, and they encouraged and I emphasize the word encouraged them to do this.
My great grandfather built them a work bench in the basement, taught them the proper use of tools and my grandmother, when it was cold, she would let them do their work on the kitchen table and they started building.
As real young boys, they didn’t get the scale so good so the buildings were quite crude in the very beginning but the idea was still there. Eventually, my grandfather decided to stick with one scale which is three eighths of an inch to the foot then he stuck with that the rest of his life. All the buildings, they’re three eighth of an inch to the foot.

Brian Balogh: He sounds like a very exact kind of man.

Delores: I always say pay attention to the detail and to him, good enough wasn’t good enough. It had to be right.

Brian Balogh: Was he a patriotic man?

Delores: Yes. He was a very religious man. He was a very patriotic man. He loved his country and he loved children. I always said, as years went by, decades later, after he died, the best way to describe him was a common genius.

Brian Balogh: You know, no saying better embodies a part of America than new and improved.

Delores: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brian Balogh: When your grandfather died in 1963, shortly there must have been discussion of new and improved.

Delores: No.

Brian Balogh: Adding, changing, modernizing.

Delores: No.

Brian Balogh: Expanding.

Delores: No, because it’s all my grandfather’s work and I always tell people say, “Why don’t you put the World Trade Center in?”, “Why don’t you do this?” He died in 1963. That’s pretty much the era, there and prior, where he lived and knew.
If you add something, I always tell people, it’s like you have a painting like a Picasso and it’s half finished and Monet comes along or somebody and finishes the picture. Whose picture is it? What is it? It’s nothing. That’s how I look at it. This, to me, is a tribute.

Brian Balogh: Delores Heinson. I know you wanna hear Roadside America’s night pageant again, so here’s some more.