In 1903, when he was 9 years old, Laurence T. Gieringer climbed Mount Penn and looked out over the city of Reading.

The vision he saw on that boyhood adventure early in the 20th century would materialize into a lasting tribute to more than 200 years of American history.

From discarded wooden fruit crates, old cardboard game boards and a remarkably inventive imagination, Gieringer fashioned a gymnasium-sized display that took generations of tourists on a timeless journey across a panorama of 18th and 19th century America.

He called it Roadside America Miniature Village.

Now, 57 years after his death, Gieringer’s ode to history is itself fading into history.

Located along Old Route 22 near Shartlesville, the miniature world Gieringer built is for sale in an online auction that concludes on Jan. 23, when the entire display will be dismantled and its more than 700 lots dispersed to the highest bidders.

Rather than viewing the auction as the end of an era, Bill Howze sees it as an opportunity for Laurence Gieringer to receive the long overdue acclaim he deserves as a folk artist.

“His work will never be experienced as a whole again, but now people will be able to see his creations up close,” said Howze, owner of The Renaissance Auction Group in Reading, which is handling the auction. “Before, they could only view them from a distance.”

Gieringer’s work, Howze noted, has rarely been owned by anyone outside the family. He expects museums and academic institutions to be among the bidders.

“I’m not an expert on model making,” Howze said, “but I would be surprised if Laurence Gieringer isn’t among the top 10 model makers of the 20th century.”

Passion for history

Perhaps for the last time, Dolores Heinsohn recently strolled through the miniature world to which Gieringer, her grandfather, devoted 60 years of his life.

“I was 5 years old when it moved here in 1953,” recalled Heinsohn, 72, who’s worked at the facility since she was a teenager.

Walking on miniature streets Gieringer built 67 years ago, Heinsohn said her grandfather’s devotion to Roadside America was built upon an abiding respect for the past.

“He loved history,” she said, standing next to a detailed model of the old Berks County Courthouse at Fifth and Penn streets in Reading. “Many of his ideas came from the things he saw growing up in Reading and Berks County.”

Gieringer’s vision of small-town America includes scale models of former landmarks such as Degler Chevrolet in Hamburg, Kauffman’s Furniture store in Reading and Long’s ESSO Service Center on Route 61 north of Reading.

Models of the Yellow House Hotel in Amity Township and the witch’s hat pavilion atop Neversink Mountain, an area familiar to Gieringer as a boy, are also part of the display.

Gieringer's genius

Roadside America’s layout is divided into three contiguous segments: Fairfield, a Depression-era town; Sleepy Hollow, a 19th century western town; and Beaver Creek, an early American frontier settlement.

Built on a scale ⅜-inch to 1 foot, the size of the models is typically around 15 inches high and 20 inches long.

Architecturally appropriate to their time period, the models include finite details like cornerstones, keystones and hand-painted stained-glass windows.

Gieringer tested various kinds of paints to ensure they would not lose their patina with age.

He made molds into which he poured molten metal to make wagon wheels and window frames.

Keen to make use of all types of materials, he pirated a curtain rod from a window in his Reading home and used it as a smokestack on a hosiery mill representative of those once common in Berks County.

“He made everything from scratch,” Heinsohn said. “He paid attention to detail.”

At its height, she said, Roadside America had 300 miniature structures, 18 trains, 10,000 handmade trees and 4,000 miniature people.

In an innovative feature for its day, visitors to Roadside America could push buttons and activate animated figures of children on see-saws and backyard swings.

Gieringer used flowing waterways and O-gauge trains to add movement to the display.

“Roadside America is an outstanding example of scale model building in the 20th century,” Howze said. “It’s motion in time.”

The model train collection is so extensive — someone once calculated the constantly running trains logged 100,000 miles a year — it will be sold in a separate auction, perhaps in April. Howze anticipates a third auction later in the year.

What's ahead

Onsite auction previews will be held at Roadside America and the nearby PA Dutch Gift Haus Jan. 16, 17, 18, 22 and 23 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 109 Roadside Drive in Upper Bern Township.

Only registered bidders will be admitted to the previews.

After bidding concludes Jan. 23 at 6 p.m., the family has six to eight weeks to clear the properties before a new owner takes possession.

The timetable is challenging, Howze said, because the 8,000-square-foot concrete and wooden platform that the display rested upon is not being auctioned and will have to be dismantled.

Bettina Heinsohn, Dolores’ elder sister, acknowledged there is an agreement of sale on the property. She preferred not to discuss details of the sale, the prospective use of the property or the identity of the new owner.

At one point, Commonwealth Real Estate listed it for sale online at $2,275,000.

Losing a loved one

Writing the final chapter of a saga begun by Gieringer 85 years ago has taken its toll on his descendants.

“It’s heartbreaking, to say the least,” Bettina Heinsohn confided. “It’s been in our family for so long, it’s almost like losing a loved one.”

She takes solace in that visitors who held birthday parties and special events at Roadside America now have an opportunity to own part of the collection.

“Knowing that they can have a piece of that special moment,” she said, “is what gets me through it mentally.”

Dolores Heinsohn recalls officiating at the night scene, one the facility’s most beloved features.

In a final tribute, immersed in her grandfather’s fantasy world, Heinsohn recited the introduction she’d given countless times over the years.

“May I have your attention, please. If everyone will go to the rear of the display located by the mirrors or the balcony facing the mountain, I will show you the night pageant. When the night pageant is over, you may continue where you left off,” she would tell the crowd.

The lights would dim, and the ceiling would be transformed into a night sky lighted by hundreds of tiny stars.

In a tribute to God and country, one of the walls would host a slideshow of religious and patriotic images. And, in a rousing conclusion, Kate Smith would sing “God Bless America.”

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