Roadside America: A tiny slice of Americana

A Sunday Drive: Roadside America
A Sunday Drive: Roadside America 04:55

If you're looking for a road-trip into yesteryear -- our Lee Cowan takes has found "A Sunday Drive" that, instead of being off the beaten path, is actually right NEXT to it...

Before I-78 was I-78 – back when folks weren't in such a hurry – a roadside attraction called Roadside America had motorists tapping the brakes.

You could barely find a parking spot when it opened in 1953 just outside Shartlesville, Pennsylvania.

The curious passed under the same sign then that still hangs today: "Who Enters Here Will be Taken by Surprises" – surprises, plural. That's because once inside, there's a surprise around every turn.

The miniature village Roadside America. CBS News

"You can walk around it ten times and find something new every time you come around," said one visitor.

Roadside America is a wonderland – part miniature village, part model railroad.

A trolley car rumbles through a miniature street scene at Roadside America. CBS News

It's all the brainchild of one man – Lawrence Gieringer – a carpenter by trade who began building scale models in the early 1900s. They soon took over his entire living room.

A tiny playground. CBS News

In 1938 Gieringer moved his display to an amusement park in Reading, Pa., but it outgrew that space, too.

It now encompasses nearly 8,000 square feet, with 4,000 tiny residents living and working amid their hundreds of tiny handmade homes and businesses.

Dolores Heinsohn, Lawrence Gieringer's granddaughter, calls Roadside America a testimonial to persistence: "People who want to give up? Don't give up!" she said. "It's an absolute time capsule of an era that's long gone."

It does conjure simpler times... the square dance in the barn; the Esso gas station with its army of attendants; and the church choir singing behind the intricately-handpainted windows.

Fill 'er up, at the Esso gas station. CBS News

Lawrence Gieringer passed away in 1963, and everything has remained largely as he left it.

"I always feel it's him in here," said Dolores.

"You still feel that? Even now?" asked Cowan. "And it's emotional for you, right? Because this was his life and you're still the caretaker of it."

"That's what I am."

She relies on a village to keep this village going. Jeff Marks is in charge of restoration: "Yes, it's old-school, it's old technology, but it evokes a feeling of childhood memories."

Richard Peiffer is the railroad foreman, making sure all the O-gauge trains are on schedule, and on track.

Railroad foreman Richard Peiffer makes sure the trains run on time. CBS News

"These are running seven or eight hours a day, five days a week, so you start multiplying that out, you've got some serious mileage," Peiffer said.

There's no manual for any of this, few blueprints to follow, and little money for advertising – which may be why so much of the traffic keeps moving right on by.

What is the hardest part of keeping Roadside America running? "Oh, maintenance, taxes," said Dolores. "I always say a business is like a pie, and constantly everybody is taking a bigger piece of the pie!" she laughed. 

Roadside America's Dolores Heinsohn with correspondent Lee Cowan. CBS News

Truth is, that parking lot isn't as full as it once was. Tourists still come, but a lazy stroll through yesteryear has a lot of modern-day touchscreen competition.

So, after all these years, Dolores is putting Roadside America up for sale, hoping someone with deeper pockets than hers can preserve what she no longer can.

It's not closing, she says; at least she hopes not. Whoever buys Roadside America has to understand what her grandfather did, that the feeling of being a kid doesn't have to die, no matter the price.

"I always say this is like comfort food for the soul, to come here, and feel nothing bad's gonna happen!" she said. "Safe, you know? It's a safe place."

Night falls on Roadside America. CBS News

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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon.

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