The Dubuque County Fairgrounds ballroom was transformed into a train lover's paradise Sunday.
There was an assortment of train and railroad track pieces for sale and trade, and of course, displays of moving miniature trains that drew fans of all ages.
Many watched, transfixed, as the trains chugged along the tiny tracks, some around scenes of green rolling hills and others through winter wonderlands. A replica of The Polar Express, situated in one of the snow-covered scenes featured in the story of the train bound for the North Pole, drew young fans to one part of the ballroom.
It was a multigenerational crowd at the Heartland Rails: Model Railroad Show & Swap Meet.
Hector Jesus Quintana, 4, was one of the younger train enthusiasts at the event.
In a blue-and-white conductor's hat and a T-shirt adorned with trains, he bounced back and forth between two large displays at the back of the ballroom to watch the trains zip by.
Hector Jesus' mother, Christine, wore a conductor hat of her own, but striped with pink. His father, also named Hector, said their family has an established history in American railroads.
"My grandfather worked for 36 years with the Sante Fe Railway. He retired in 1986," said Hector, who is originally from New Mexico.
The family background in the train industry took new root when Hector Jesus discovered Thomas the Tank Engine, the source of popular children's books and a television series.
His father said it "added fuel to the fire" in his son's fascination with trains.
Hector said they will set up a track with some Sante Fe models each year around Christmastime to play with, but for year-round entertainment they stick with Thomas the Tank Engine toys because they are more "forgiving" in a 4-year-old's hands.
The Quintana family lives in Dubuque and regularly attends the Heartland Rails show, now in its 26th year.
The show, put on by the Heartland Rails Model Railroad Club, is held annually on the first Sunday of November, according to Gary Weiner, the event organizer.
Attendance figures were not available, but Weiner said the event typically draws about 1,000 people. It features vendors from five different states across the Midwest, who buy, sell and trade various products.
Asked what about the event draws enthusiasts across such a wide age span, Weiner said it constitutes a family tradition for many.
He cited his own family history:
"My dad was a collector, so I started at an early age. After he passed away, I sold it all when I was a freshman, like a fool. After I had my first son, I got back into it," he said.
That son is now in his 30s and has his dream job, Weiner said.
"He works for the railroad."