Charlemagne's Kingdom.

Charlemagne's Kingdom

Field review by the editors.

Helen, Georgia

Willi Lindhorst retired after this Field Review was written, but his attraction was saved and reopened by new owners Tyanna and Chad Jackson, who also operate a motel with a windmill next door.

Willi Lindhorst came to America from Germany, raised a family, and when he retired in the 1990s he had one goal: to find a place big enough for all of his model trains. When that proved impossible, he and his wife Judi simply built one themselves.

The result is Charlemagne's Kingdom, a majestic display of German pride and forced perspective. Its two-story showcase fits in perfectly with the windmills and gingerbread architecture of Helen, Georgia, which reinvented itself as a Bavarian village in the late 1960s. A mural on its outside wall depicts Willi and Judi, in 1995, as Charlemagne and his queen.

Willi Lindhorst
Willi Lindhorst

The motto of the Kingdom is "Germany from the North Sea to the Alps." You pay in the gift shop, walk through a set of double doors, and immediately confront a hypercompressed view of Deutschland, as if viewed through an impossibly powerful telephoto lens. "We are looking south, about 700 miles," said Willi. "Everything is closer together because I don't have much more room." According to Willi, a Germany that would accurately fit the scale of his trains would need a building eight miles long.

The most obvious result of Willi's need to squish is his mega-Matterhorn, over 22 feet tall at the south end of the display. In real life the Matterhorn is a big mountain, but its scale in the Kingdom makes it look as if it could reach outer space. Trains race in and out of its tunnels; skiers ride a motorized gondola to its airless summit; Neuschwanstein Castle perches on one of its lofty crags.

Neuschwanstein Castle.
Neuschwanstein Castle

The mountain isn't all showmanship, for within it is Willi's master control room. From here Willi coordinates what would appear to be an impossible ballet of bullet trains, freight trains, and passenger trains, crisscrossing and sharing each other's tracks in the densely packed Kingdom. "I don't know how to run a computer, but I know relays and magnets," said Willi. "I am the only one that can figure it out, but I know what I am doing."

We head out onto the floor for a walk around the Kingdom. There are churches and canals, shipyards and skyscrapers. Cars move on the Autobahn, swimmers paddle in an outdoor pool, a bungee jumper repeatedly leaps off a hillside bridge. Tiny people at the Oktoberfest buy weenies from a building shaped like a grinning hot dog while alpine horn blowers entertain the crowd. Every building, said Willi, is a model of one that actually exists in Germany. The understated lighting and muted colors of the Kingdom make us feel as if we're standing inside an old linen postcard.

Crashed UFOs.
Crashed UFOs.

For reasons that Willi will not divulge, a flying saucer has crashed into a hillside below the bullet train, exploding in a creative fireball of cotton wadding and a red light bulb. Sound effects fill the big room: train whistles, clanging signals, puffing locomotives, squealing brakes. A continuous stream of happy German music offers context: accordions, emphatic whistling, an occasional Alpine yodel. Lorelei the mythical Rhine maiden sits only a few inches away from a German miniature golf course.

Willi tells us with pride that he was born in 1938, "and I'm still playing with trains." He is the oldest kid in the room, excitedly pointing out details within the tableau. "Look, the flying saucer has tipped over the little cows!"

Charlemagne's Kingdom

Address:
8808 N. Main St., Helen, GA
Directions:
North end of town, on the east side of Main St., just south of the big windmill at the Heidi Motel.
Hours:
Daily 10:30-5
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Alps of the South - German VillageAlps of the South - German Village, Helen, GA - < 1 mi.
Indian Mound Love Tragedy SiteIndian Mound Love Tragedy Site, Helen, GA - 2 mi.
Wampus BoxWampus Box, Sautee Nacoochee, GA - 4 mi.
In the region:
Peter Toth Giant Indian Head, Cherokee, NC - 59 mi.

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April 20, 2018

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