Sights, Sounds and Memories of Summer's Biggest Event

Photos and Article by Joseph Hopper, Iowa Soybean Association

Discover what it takes to be a fair food judge, take a virtual ride on Iowa's railroads, and relive the exhilarating sights and sounds of Iowa’s largest summer event.

It’s been just a month since the 2021 Iowa State Fair concluded, but the memories of delicious and splurge-worthy foods, thrilling rides and award-winning livestock shows last a lifetime.

For fairgoers who meander off the Grand Concourse, Midway or Show Barns, they find captivating recipe judging, model trains paying homage to Iowa's historical sites, and the beauty and sounds of the sun setting over Iowa’s capital city.

Like many Iowans, you might be missing those magical 11 days of the Iowa State Fair. To satisfy your lingering “fair fix,” enjoy a behind-the-scenes look into a must-see Iowa State Fair bucket list item for next year and learn some secrets from a food judge (you have 11 months to hone your skills!).

Get Sidetracked

One of the Iowa State Fair's most extensive exhibits requires a little bit of investigative work. Here’s a hint:  There’s a roof over its head! The Central Iowa Railroad Club is located on the south side of the fair, parallel to the Cattlemen’s Beef Quarters and marked with several railroad-themed signs. Once fairgoers enter past the ticket booth and into the air-conditioned building, it's hard for their eyes not to go wide seeing a model train display that would take hours to pore over carefully.

“It’s almost a full-time job for a couple of people,” Paul Knowles, a longtime member, says. “Luckily, being a club, we have a diverse cross-section of the public who contribute time and talent.”

The vast landscape created by the club holds many Iowa sights and scenery but isn’t based on one particular area of the Hawkeye State. Longtime Iowans and would-be historians who look carefully can find model homages to the Kate Shelley High Bridge from Boone; the Art Deco-style Burlington Train Station, which still serves Iowans traveling by train today; and inside jokes like D.C. Comics’ Superman, who has been placed throughout the ever-changing layout for decades. Club members have built many fixtures by hand.

The breathtaking surface level of the exhibit isn’t the end of the club’s work; it’s built upon stories of sections underneath, which are also where the out-of-sight electronics help keep the trains on time. The club designed the exhibit's trains to work as they would in the real world, fulfilling specific jobs. Club members are constantly on the move as the set dazzles fairgoers, and they work to ensure everything is properly maintained and moving along. During the fair, club members and friends from across the country lend a hand to put on a special show.

“It is a unique opportunity to show off,” Knowles says. “It’s not the most expensive hobby but it’s not the cheapest hobby. There are many people who think model train guys hide in the basement and aren't very social. This allows us to be very social and justifies the collection."

Knowles says the typical American does not have the same reliance on trains as they once did but hopes the exhibit is a way to promote the form of transportation and its incredible history to others.

“Railroads aren’t in everyone’s thoughts anymore,” Knowles says. “But there’s still a lot of nostalgia. Almost all families still have a tie to the railroad. It's great to bring that nostalgia part of it out; it's fun to watch their reactions. Some people have been coming here for decades to see how we change things."

Fair Food Family

During the Iowa State Fair, the Elwell Family Food Center becomes home to the largest fair food department in the nation. The Iowa State Fair (ISF) Food Department tackled 134 divisions, 603 classes and more than 6,400 entries as Iowa foodies showed off their culinary skills in 2021.

The ISF Food Department staff works at a relentless pace. Judges — whose backgrounds include dietitians, longtime food competitors, farmers, educators and more — carefully sample and examine each exhibit. The judges' support staff, clad in red shirts, transcribe detailed judging notes, organize materials and help out wherever a need arises. Exhibitors take their place in the audience and are often just as attentive over the competition as they perfect their recipes each year.

Many who make up the ISF Food Department return each year to make the food contests a success. In the department break room, pasted to the wall, are newspaper clippings and handwritten notes offering the latest news on the many men and women who work in the department each year. Claudette Taylor, an ISF Food Department judge for more than three decades, says the department is a giant extended family.

“We’re all here doing a job, but yet we become acquainted with each other,” Taylor says. “It’s like a big family reunion down here every year. We all know each other’s first names, but no one knows our last names.”

The longtime culinary judge says things have constantly been changing in the food world each year, with new methods, products and people arriving each fair. Taylor says it takes passion to be a fair food department judge, but it also takes practice. She first came to judging through 4-H before entering the Iowa State Fair culinary world.

“It kind of gets in your blood,” Taylor says. “We learn from one other, I do a lot of reading at home, and I cook from scratch at home. I don't judge anything that I don't do myself. I've had my share of, 'I pulled it out of the oven and said I don't think so.' It's experience, and it's hands-on.”

As the food exhibits are judged and ribbons are handed out, they make their way on display for visiting fairgoers, many inside the rows of illuminated, glass-panel refrigerators. Each has its own identifying tag, showing who made the exhibit and also the initials of who judged it. Exhibitors range in age from the young to the young at heart. The children who enter their exhibits are one of the reasons Taylor comes back to judge each year.

What does it take to win the blue ribbon in a food contest? Taylor says what tends to stand out are exhibits that are “complete.” The rest is up to the artistic minds at work in the kitchen.

“I always tell people – read the fine print to make sure you’re covering all the requirements,” says Taylor.

Setting Sun, Exhilarating Sounds and Money Tossing

The Iowa State Fair does not slow down as fast as the sun comes down. The light show of an Iowan sunset means fair nightlife is on the way: neon signs begin to light up, the Midway's colorful lights spin and dance as rides exhilarate the fairgoers who are out to get as much fun from the fair as possible. Sounds are one of the hallmarks of nighttime at the fair. Whether the live shows are at the Grandstand or anywhere else, people are singing, dancing, or tapping their feet once the music begins to play.

It’s not without some goofiness either. Two unidentified fairgoers made headlines this year, partaking in the unofficial fair tradition of tossing dollar bills off the sky glider. As soon as the last beams of the sun's light shone on the fairgrounds a day after the story ran, stray dollar bills again floated down onto the throngs of fairgoers near the Bud Tent.

Sights, sounds or blessings from above it's all just a part of what makes the nighttime fair hours a must-see part of the Iowa State Fair experience.

Mark your calendars! We’re just 46 weeks away from the great Iowa State Fair!