03/19/2015 03:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Roadside America: A Trip Down Memory Lane

Old Route 22 runs West of Allentown and trails off into memory. You can still find it, or parts of it, but you have to get off I-78, and who wants to do that anymore? My wife and I both grew up in Allentown (You can stop humming now), and it already looked this way back then.

My father had brought me to this place when I was a boy. When she was a girl, her dad brought her. Traveling with our son down to Philadelphia, we thought it would be worth the short detour to show it to him. And to see it again ourselves. For old time's sake.

Old Route 22 is older than us. It ventured forth from Tilghman Street in an era when escaping from the seaboard's cities meant stopping by the motor club for a triptik that might take you as far as Harrisburg. It was before the interstates; the world must have seemed so much bigger then.

It was only natural that someone would want to contain it, and while Shartlesville, Pennsylvania may seem like an unlikely venue for humankind's epic battle against insignificance to play out, it was probably a pretty lucrative place in 1939. There was no way from a Manhattan office to the pastoral respite of Pennsylvania Dutch Country but Old Route 22 back then. Hence the gift shops hawking particle-board hex signs, the ranch-style motels and "Indian Villages" offering moccasins, fireworks and turquoise rings.

Among these attractions you'll find Roadside America, the "World's Greatest Indoor Miniature Village," founded in 1939. It boasts 18 trains, trolleys and cable cars ranging all over an 8,000-square-foot world of 300 miniature structures, 10,000 trees and 4,000 tiny Americans engaged in the pursuits of everyday life--all of which we know because it was a prominent part of the advertising.


"Look at the level of detail," my dad had instructed. The astounding "level of detail" was also listed on the signage, and he, no doubt, wanted to get his money's worth. I tried to obey. I peered through the tiny windows to see miniature, painted workers suspended forever in mid-shift, watched the little girl on the station platform fail to board the train no matter how many times it whizzed by. The harder I looked the more lifeless it seemed. The cars sat stalled at intersections like in Nicholas Meyer's The Day After. The cellophane in a church's stained glass window had slid down, revealing an olive-sized light bulb where the altar ought to have been.

What impressed me wasn't the detail but the unimaginable scale of it. In their attempt to conquer the vastness they had gathered and presented it to me. It was as if I was noticing it for the very first time. That was the sense of wonder I remembered, and that I wanted to see in my son. Not a fear of how large the world outside of ourselves can be, but an excitement at the prospect of it. And he didn't disappoint. We could see the wonder in his eyes, and in the eyes of the two other toddlers there that afternoon. Thankfully, they couldn't see the nostalgia in ours.


Roadside America is steeped in nostalgia. Indeed it is part of the draw. The other toddlers' parents were looking back and forth from the Styrofoam continent to their kids' faces just as we were. Folks from New York City don't really stop here anymore. It's people from Reading and Quakertown, who had also been brought here as children. It's people like us.

Then the lights went down, and wonder gave way to fear.

At first, I'd hoped the houses coming alive with electric light might intrigue our boy, but even in full size that's a paltry defense against night. He fidgeted restlessly and began murmuring his discontent, while we tried to soothe him and counted ourselves lucky there were no really loud noises. He hates those.

Cue: "The Night Pageant"

Apparently they do this every half hour or so. Once night has fallen, the spotlight comes on, focused on one of this rectangular universe's short walls, where the swaddling colors of a pre-cold war propagandist oil painting served as the backdrop for an actual American Flag on a small, indoor pole. Large production patriotic chorale music choked over speakers that would have been more at home in the 70's, like us. My kid was having none of it, and we rocked and sang to him urgently as the music blared and the flag waved, adorned by electric light on the front and, behind, the elaborately articulated glow of Heaven.

Interweaving patriotism and religion was a primary objective for the propaganda of the time, of course--to distinguish us from both the godless fascist forces of Europe and the godless communist empires of the East. It's just strange to see it in person in 2015.

It seemed to go on forever, which is always the case when the kid is upset. When it finally waned and dawn warmed up the grid of overhead lights, we all seemed relieved. Before long, the kid was having a great time again.

Beside the parents with two toddlers, the only other visitors were a father and his 13 year-old-son. The dad--a short, fit man with a crew cut, cowboy boots and a folding knife holstered to his belt--engaged with my boy sweetly. It was as if he finally found the wonder he was looking for. His son kicked the rails around the display sullenly in his Boy Scout uniform. He, too, had been here before, and he was too young to find nostalgia interesting.

By this point I was finding it less interesting, too. I couldn't help it; the world of Roadside America looked different to me in the halogen light of the simulated new day. It wasn't just patch of civilization, plucked from context, as I had imagined both 30 years and 30 minutes ago. The establishment's name was even more descriptive than I'd thought.

This was a vision of America, and, as you might suspect, it was an incredibly white America. The only black faces were in the little, motorized mineshaft. There were Native American displays--paintings, arrowheads and spattered dioramas of campsites--but they were always along the walls, forever on the outside, apart from the one-fifth acre America in the middle of the room.

We came back because we wanted to show something to our kid. Now I just wanted to get on the interstate again. We had at least an hour of driving ahead of us, and I didn't want to risk another Night Pageant. But if you're ever passing through Shartlesville, it's $6.50 for adults. And I suppose it is worth it. For old time's sake.