Joy in Creation: A Profile in Catholic Creativity

(Originally posted 2006, revised July, 2013)
Among the many thousands of names carved on the walls of Memorial Hall at the National Shrine of The Immaculate Conception are those of Laurence and Dora Gieringer. In their portion of stone, which is extra large, are also the words "Roadside America, Shartlesville, PA." Not only is this inscription a memorial to a devout Catholic couple who gave very generously to the building of the Shrine, it is also a billboard cleverly placed for the centuries by a natural-born showman.

It helps to be a showman and unabashed self-promoter to turn one's hobby into a lucrative livelihood as Larry Gieringer did. His hobby, taken up with his brother Paul when he was a child in early 1900s Reading PA, was making miniature buildings, people, vehicles. Germans long had a custom of augmenting Christmas manger scenes with little representations of their daily lives; Christ among us. It is no coincidence that model railroading originated in Germany. It is a stretch, but not a wholly ridiculous one, to say that toy trains were ultimately inspired by Jesus.

Paul became a priest in the Diocese of Harrisburg, one of his assignments being at the historic Conewego Chapel near Hanover. Larry discovered during the Great Depression that people would pay money to see his "miniature village." To add the interest of motion, he created animated displays such as a barn dance, a working coal breaker. His rivers and lakes are of real water -- 6000 gallons -- and host goldfish. Most action is furnished by extensive lines of electric trains.

Roadside America is not a model railroad or even a train layout, but it has given many a kid a glimpse into a kind of heaven. After such a glimpse, that kid could never outgrow his trains and has tried to go therefore and do likewise as Larry Gieringer did.

By the 1950s, Gieringer had located his ever-growing little world in a gymnasium-sized building on the main highway leading to and from New York, Route 22 (now 22/78) where it remains today. At its height, Roadside America featured a petting zoo, a dress won by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz and a Lourdes Grotto.

In the 2010s, the miniature village remains unchanged. Even the linoleum floor surrounding the layout is vintage 1950s. A picture of the Sacred Heart is still projected during "the night pageant" when all the little buildings are lit in a darkened room and Kate Smith sings "God Bless America." There is only joy and peace in Roadside America. It is good.

Some people think that building little worlds is a silly pastime, another meaningless thing done by the more pathetic specimens of that erratic and absurd animal, Man. Nevertheless, "Why little buildings and trees and trains?" is a good question. Larry Gieringer, of the order of snake-farm operators, through his loving and joyful work of 60 years, gave us the answer. Being made in God's image, we create as God created and in creating little worlds we are blessed to experience some of the joy that God felt in creating us.

As of 2013, Roadside America is still in business and is little changed since its opening on Route 22/78 in 1953. It is a national treasure that should not be missed by anyone traveling through East Central Pennsylvania. The web site is:

Laurence Gieringer Roadside America
Roadside America Shartlesville PA
The buildings are strong enough to sit on and there are real fish in the water. Circa 1960, Larry Gieringer (right) with son-in-law and granddaughter.
Roadside America Shartlesville PA
An 0 ga. train speeds past the 1890-era Fairfield station. In back are Gieringer houses representing different eras and styles of architecture (up to the 1950s). No Brutalism in Roadside America.
Photos do not do justice to the Shrine Church with its stained-glass windows and Mary grotto. Gieringer also built the horses and buggies. Mrs. Gieringer made the thousands of trees.
Copyright 2013 by Neal J. Conway. All rights reserved.

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