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Tiny town is a big attraction

Daddy, can you build me a dollhouse? Please," little Alberta begged her father, Laurence Gieringer. Alberta grew older, but her wish was never fulfilled.

Instead, father Gieringer "borrowed" the dollhouse interior for which Alberta so desperately wanted an exterior and put it in his new furniture store. Since 1938, this miniature building has been on display, together with close to 400 other miniature buildings, at Roadside America in Shartlesville, Pa., north of Reading.

Alberta Bernecker is now 80 and the owner of Roadside America. She is eager to show what she inherited from her father.

"Every house and every car is different," she says. "That is what people like about it."

You can spend hours looking at every detail of the miniatures displayed in 6,000 square feet and continue to find something new: a father flying a red kite for his son; Peter Miller's Bake Shop, where people could take their dough and have it baked; or the harness shop of Alberta's grandfather. Especially astonishing is a cathedral with 44 hand-painted windows. Gieringer spent 400 hours on this one building alone.

Visitors can also explore "the button business," as the owner puts it. Each time you press a little button, something moves, sings, plays or drives.

"This one," Alberta explains, "operates the steam roller."

Another one makes an old church bell ring. The more buttons you press, the more sounds fill the air. Close your eyes and hear a choir singing in the distance, trains rattling over little tracks and water splashing. The noises not only create a relaxing atmosphere, but also take you into another world - the world of Laurence Gieringer.

As a little boy, Gieringer used to look at distant buildings and fantasize about owning those "toy houses." A couple of years later he started to fulfill his dream by building an idealized version of American rural life in the early 1700s. He continued until he died in 1961. In the process, he used 17,700 board feet of lumber, 4,000 pounds of sheet iron, 2,250 feet of railroad and trolley track and five electric pumps handling 6,000 gallons of water per hour. His wife, Dora, made 10,000 miniature trees and shrubberies. As Roadside America's motto states, "Be prepared to see more than you expect - you'll be amazed."

Kids will share in the amazement as well.

"Look at the train over there," Stephanie Mcculley tells her 2 1/2 -year-old son, Brody. His eyes widen. The excitement gets hold of him, and he can hardly stand still. Neither can his father, A.G. The last time he visited Roadside America, he was only 4. The images got lost during the 25 years gone by, but he does recall the atmosphere. Maybe that was the reason he wanted to own a model railroad years later. It definitely was the reason for bringing Brody.

From September through June, Roadside America is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the weekends. From July 1 until Labor Day, hours are 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on the weekends. Admission is $4.50 for adults, $4 for seniors and $2 for children 6 to 11 years. Ages 5 and under admitted free. Call 610-488-6241 between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.

After visiting this miniature village, take a look at the real buildings of Shartlesville. Just drive up Main Street (Old Route 22, east of Roadside America) and enjoy rural antiques stores, little hotels, diners and a used-book store. Pay a visit to Haag's (5661 Old Route 22), a bakery and a diner. Then turn left on North Fifth Street to see an old gas station.

What to see and do

After seeing a Pennsylvania Dutch farm in miniature, pay a visit to the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University (15200 Kutztown Road, 610-683-4000) to see a life-size one and learn more about the Pennsylvania Dutch/German. You will step 125 years back in time. Take a look at a stone farm house and a one-room schoolhouse called the Freyberger School. Walk around the 60 acres and see all sorts of ancient farm equipment: plows of all sizes, a grinding stone, a coach and a sled. The center is also working on two log houses. Visit Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

To eat and drink

Basin Street Hotel (42 E. Main St., Kutztown, 610-683-7900) Enjoy ordering a "cheerleader," a "golden bear," a "graduate" or a "professor" at the Basin Street Hotel. The result will be one of several hearty sandwiches.

Getting there

Roadside America is at 109 Roadside Drive in Shartlesville. Take Interstate 83 north from Baltimore. At Harrisburg, change to I-81 east. I-81 will turn into I-78. Follow the interstate until a huge Amish couple greets you (Exit 23). If you want to visit Kutztown afterward, travel on the scenic byway: Take U.S. 22 east, change in Len- hartsville (Exit 35) to Route 143 south until you reach Virginville. Follow the signs toward the Crystal Cave; keep going until you hit U.S. 222. Drive east toward Kutztown. Watch for little airplanes. The Kutztown Airport is across the street from the Pennsylvania German Heritage Center. To see more on your way back, take U.S. 222 southwest past Reading until you reach Lancaster. Change onto U.S. 30 west to York. Take I-83 south home.

For more regional trips, see Page 37.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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