The village of Fairfield teems with life. Yet the ballplayers, canoeists and construction workers have been frozen in place for more than half a century.

America in miniature, the sprawling nano-village was the lifelong oeuvre of Laurence Gieringer, who began building models as a boy in Reading. He added on and on, until the village was big enough to fill nearly 8,000 square feet in a building in Shartlesville, Berks County. It opened in 1953 as Roadside America, "The World's Largest Miniature Village!"

And today, although fewer cars may fill the parking lot, the town of Fairfield stands open to visitors just as Gieringer left it when he died in 1963.

"I don't change," said Dolores Heinsohn, the 69-year-old granddaughter of Gieringer who keeps Roadside America running today. "That's the key to me."

And Roadside America's consistency is a draw for visitors. "They know when they come back they're not going to be disappointed and they know it's not going to change," she said. "I say it's comfort food for the soul."

From cast-metal carriage wheels to zippy trains to architecturally true bridges, the miniature village is a wonder of artistry: every person, car and building intentionally positioned and no detail left untended. A blue sign hangs across the front door: "Who enters here will be taken by surprises — be prepared to see more than you expect!"

Dolores Heinsohn, the granddaughter of Laurence Gieringer, looks through photo albums that tell the story of how her grandfather made Roadside America. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Michael Bryant
Dolores Heinsohn, the granddaughter of Laurence Gieringer, looks through photo albums that tell the story of how her grandfather made Roadside America. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

"It's very hard to explain to people what it is," Heinsohn said. "People think it's nothing, but when they walk in that door, they're shocked."

People such as the Violantes. For four years, Pete Violante and his daughters, 22-year-old Amy and 14-year-old Emily, had been driving by Roadside America's signature Pennsylvania Dutch couple that beckons to motorists on I-78 as the family shuttled between their home in Easton and Gettysburg College, where Amy was a student.

Last week, the family finally stopped.

"I expected a flat, train-set setup," said Pete Violante, 44.

Instead, the family saw a carefully scaled topography of mountains, valleys and lakes. About 350 buildings and hundreds if not thousands of people populate Fairfield — all built at 3/8 of an inch to a foot.

The movie house perpetually advertises Boys Town, vintage 1938, starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. A band plays in a gazebo to an audience sitting on benches. The cathedral stands as a beacon, with light shining out of 44 hand-painted windows.

A miniature church with stained glass windows in the fictional town of Fairfield, PA. Laurence Gieringer hand-painted the stained-glass windows, trying different kinds of paint to find one that would not fade over time or with exposure to light. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Michael Bryant
A miniature church with stained glass windows in the fictional town of Fairfield, PA. Laurence Gieringer hand-painted the stained-glass windows, trying different kinds of paint to find one that would not fade over time or with exposure to light. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Visitors can push buttons to animate trolleys on tracks, children on swings, or wells in an oil field. Real fish swim underneath fishermen in boats, their lines bobbing in the water.

"It's one of those things you have to see once in your life if you live in the region — and even if you don't," said Lisa Haggerty, the marketing manager at Berks County's visitors bureau.

Gieringer spent months constructing single buildings, using wood from old furniture or produce crates. He built fire escapes from the family's curtain rods and nicked his daughter's dollhouse furniture.

He began making models at 9 and made some of the first pieces of Roadside America when he was an adolescent, crafting in the workshop his father built him.

In 1935, Gieringer and his wife opened their home for the public to see what would become Roadside America, which was already big enough to take over their living room.

Two years later, the miniature village — now 700 square feet — drew 58,000 visitors in eight weeks displayed at a firehouse in Reading.

A family photograph shows Laurence Gieringer behind the cash register in the Roadside America gift shop in Shartlesville, Pa.MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Michael Bryant
A family photograph shows Laurence Gieringer behind the cash register in the Roadside America gift shop in Shartlesville, Pa.MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

After showing "Hobbytown" in various locations, Gieringer — who built homes, sold oil paintings, and made tombstones to support his family — moved to the current location. After two months of setup, the family celebrated Roadside America's grand opening on Aug. 5, 1953.

Gieringer kept adding to his creation until his death from cancer in 1963 at age 69. But from the administrations of John F. Kennedy to President Trump, not much has changed inside Gieringer's village.

Today, visitors come from around the world and closer to home. Some people drive by for decades before their curiosity gets the best of them. Others are frequent visitors. A few years ago, a man proposed to his girlfriend in a tunnel behind the waterfall.

Heinsohn welcomes close to 100,000 guests each year. The site's roughly 200 parking spaces used to be full with families taking day trips and school buses packed with children.

But in the 90s, "it started to take on this kitschy persona," Heinsohn said; people mocked it. "It was unsettling to me."

Now, though, she is beginning to see a resurgence in the general public's appreciation for and understanding of the place.

"This is the kind of thing that's missing in this country nowadays," said Heinsohn. "That's why, to me, it's so important to hang on to it tenaciously."

Visitors to Roadside America can tour the exhibit by walking around the huge miniature village up close and from a balcony walkway.MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Michael Bryant
Visitors to Roadside America can tour the exhibit by walking around the huge miniature village up close and from a balcony walkway.MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

On Wednesday, about 35 people were inside as the twice-hourly "night scene" began in the mid-afternoon: Thanks to 170 buttons pushed consecutively, night fell over the village as a spotlight appeared on the American flag, painted on a wall. As "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America" played, Fairfield went to sleep, and then the sun rose for a new day.

John Herczeg strolled around the village with his daughter and her boyfriend's 7-year-old son. Herczeg, 70, had last visited Roadside America when he was in sixth grade. He brought the boy hoping it would "widen his horizons."

"It kind of looks the same," said Herczeg, of Whitehall. "It's nice. It's quaint."

After Gieringer died, his wife decided to sell the attraction. As she was about to sign the papers, lawyer present, Heinsohn's mother put her hand on the paper. "Think about it," she told the widow.

That was the end of the deal, recounted Heinsohn. "The lawyer said, 'We flew in from Texas for this!' And my mother said, 'Well, you can fly right back.'"

At just 14, Heinsohn already saw in Roadside America her life's work. As she watched her grandmother consider selling, she worried: "Where is my future?"

Heinsohn has never forgotten that close call, and has avoided temptation to sell. She is certain Roadside America would not be standing today had her grandmother signed that contract.

And since, Heinsohn has dedicated her life to keeping Gieringer's work intact; now, one of her daughters and her son-in-law run it with her.

"Like my mother and my grandfather used to say, you've got to have fun with it," she said. "You've got to have that inner child in you."