Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Roadside Distractions: Take a day trip to the offbeat, the unusual.

Illustration by Aron Rook.

Illustration by Aron Rook.

Face it—for many of us, life has become routine, predictable, the same-old, same-old.

Which is why, every once in awhile, we all need a good dose of silly and strange to set us right again.

Fortunately, here in central PA, the antidote to life’s monotony is but a short drive away. Several attractions, all about an hour from downtown Harrisburg, will break you from the humdrum, giving you a new appreciation for the offbeat.


Roadside America

“Roadside America” is a guide for uniquely odd tourist attractions all over the United States and Canada. Pennsylvania has the auspicious honor of having the original Roadside America, conveniently located just off I-78.

Billed as “The World’s Greatest Indoor Miniature Village,” Roadside America represents small-town America forever stuck in the days of yore. Reading-area carpenter Laurence T. Gieringer began creating and displaying these tiny towns, most connected by railroads, in the mid-1930s, and, by the time he died, his life’s work filled a warehouse-sized building in Shartlesville.

Each scene is Norman Rockwell-ian—no tattoo parlors, pawnshops or bail bondsmen, but plenty of trains, bridges and small-town charm. They contain a level of detail that leads visitors to point and say, “Look at that!”

The scenes harken back to an America when art deco signage advertised products like Ford cars, Ivory soap and Coca-Cola. There’s even a night skyline, lit with 6,000 miniature light bulbs and 21,500 feet of electrical wiring.

The 6,000-square-foot display contains more than 300 miniature structures, 10,000 trees, 4,000 people and 2,250 feet of railroad track. The waterways are real, with many of them flowing, connecting each other.

You can even interact with some portions of the displays. There are four trolleys and eight trains, three of which you can operate. Some of the scenes are animated, going into motion when you push a button. A circus parade will march by or construction or sawmill workers will faithfully carry out their duties.

When Gieringer died in 1963, the displays froze in time, with nothing added. For the last 50-plus years, the same slideshow has run, the slides’ colors faded and drained. The voices on the speakers are scratchy. The waterways are just a little musty. But the vintage feel and kitsch are vibrant and alive at Roadside America.

Roadside America is located at 109 Roadside Dr., Shartlesville. For more information, visit


Mister Ed’s Elephant Museum and Candy Emporium

What exactly is an elephant museum and what is it doing in Adams County?

Well, it’s just as odd as it sounds. About 12,000 elephants are on display, miniaturized so that they fit into the small space they occupy in Orrtanna. You can also buy more than 700 varieties of candy, along with numerous homemade fudge flavors.

On a visit, you may not run into Mr. Ed himself (founder Ed Gotwalt), but pictures of him adorn the walls in the restrooms, along with stars of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. If celebrities appeared on an episode of “The Love Boat,” chances are they posed with Mr. Ed for his lavatory collection. The caricatures and news clippings of Mr. Ed hanging alongside the soap dispenser made me wish I could meet him.

The candy shop is larger than the elephant museum, which is a compact display of assorted elephants. Many figurines are inspired by the circus, the Republican Party or Disney creations. Whatever their origins, there’s a plethora of pachyderms. And candy. And quirk.

A family affair with seasonal events around candy holidays, this mega gift shop plans to grow through the next generation of Mr. Ed-lings (i.e., his granddaughter and her husband and their family).

Before you pack your car with $50 worth of candy (OK, maybe that’s just me), be sure to meander out into the yard. You’ll find an elephant graveyard full of broken elephant statues, the “Stairway to Nowhere,” flip-flops strung from trees and an elegant invention by John Crapper. Yes, John Crapper.

Mister Ed’s Elephant Museum and Candy Emporium is located at 6019 Chambersburg Rd., Orrtanna. For more information, visit


Civil War Tails Diorama Museum

Are you a Civil War buff? Do you like cats? Then Civil War Tails at the Homestead Diorama Museum in Gettysburg is your kind of place, as it features dioramas of more than 8,000 kitties (and counting) fighting the Civil War.

Twin sisters Rebecca and Ruth Brown have handcrafted each display, combining their appreciation for the Civil War with their affection for felines. They started this labor of love 21 years ago when they were just 11 years old.

“Ours are unique in that we want to tell the stories of individuals,” said Ruth. “All of our larger dioramas have information panels with stories of individuals or units, as well as the general overview of what you’re looking at.”

Each scene is built to scale, representing with historical accuracy various battles (other than the fact that the soldiers are cats.) The dioramas are housed in the former National Soldiers’ Orphans’ Homestead, which once housed 70 girls.

Featured battles they have constructed—so far—are the Battle between the Ironclads, Fort Sumter, Little Round Top and the Angle at Gettysburg during Pickett’s Charge.

The models’ level of detail and care gives paws (ha!) to how much the sisters want visitors to learn as much as they know about the Civil War. The ladies even take you inside their workshop via a picture tour to show their miniature construction sites.

Their careful production mimics the topographical maps and historical tomes the twins have pored over. Traditional model site materials include acrylic paint, glue and reindeer moss. Madcap materials include used tea leaves, a black pepper shaker to apply ground cover and rocks made of clay.

Why clay, you may ask? That’s to get the rocks perfectly to scale (insert kitty litter joke here).

Each diorama tells a story of American military history in the context of the time period that shaped the Civil War. And the sisters’ descriptive writing is like catnip to a Civil War enthusiast. Reading the stories, I hardly realized I was learning, too.

And just what do the cats add to this, um, mewseum? Who cares? They’re cats. And they’re fighting the Civil War.

Civil War Tails at the Homestead Diorama Museum is located at 785 Baltimore St., Gettysburg. For more information, visit

Author: Gina Napoli



Continue Reading