The Butter Cow Lady Comes to Ames

As the year comes to a close, it is not unusual to reflect upon the events of the past year and give thanks for the gifts that were received. This can be important for archivists to do as well. In fact, many archives, including this one, rely heavily upon the generosity of our donors. At Iowa State, faculty offer their teaching and research files, campus units transfer administrative records, and others donate cherished materials from when they or their loved ones were students at Iowa State.

I have met and worked with many people this past year and as I think about those experiences, there are several memories that come immediately to mind. One that stands out for me was actually initiated over a year ago when I received a phone call from the son of Norma “Duffy” Lyon. For those readers not familiar with that name, you would probably recognize her if I referred to her as the Butter-Cow Lady. For decades, Norma’s butter sculptures were the star attractions of the Iowa State Fair.

Norma Lyon sculpting a butter cow

This picture shows Norma “Duffy” Lyon sculpting the 1998 Iowa State Fair butter cow. (Norma Lyon papers, RS 21/7/280, unprocessed)

Norma passed away in 2011 and, after several years of contemplating what to do with the materials she left behind, the family made the difficult decision to donate them to the archives at Iowa State University. I met with the family last year to gather items belonging to Norma and learned about the woman whose materials were being given to our care. As I reviewed the donation, her son and his wife shared memories of Norma and related stories of Norma’s youth that they had heard over the years. Then, this past summer, the family donated additional materials. The collection is not a large one, but it does include a wide variety of items such as original artwork, sketchpads, photographs, clippings, and ephemera.

Norma showing a horse

Norma Stong as a college student showing a horse during the late 1940s. (Norma Lyon papers, RS 21/7/280, unprocessed)

One of the more interesting items donated was a binder of photographs. These photographs showed the entire process that Norma used to create the 1998 Iowa State Fair butter cow. Another wonderful piece in the collection is a book containing college ephemera from Norma’s time as a student at Iowa State. I discovered that she graduated in 1950 with a degree in animal husbandry (one of the first women to receive that degree from ISU) and had a love of art. As a student she took classes from Iowa State’s sculptor-in-residence, Christian Petersen. After graduation, Norma was able to combine those two passions and do something wonderful with them. The collection is not yet open to researchers, but during the coming year it will be processed and prepared for people to view.

One of the great joys of this profession is to be able to share unique collections like Norma’s with the public. The staff here in Special Collections and University Archives takes a lot of pride in our work, but the work that we do would be impossible without the support of our donors. If you are curious about materials you have and whether they are appropriate for the archives, feel free to contact us. We would love to hear from you.

4 thoughts on “The Butter Cow Lady Comes to Ames

  1. Shelley Hawkins

    Norma’s daughter Emily was my HR (head resident) on my dorm floor (Durian) in Oak/Elm in the early 1970’s. I had the opportunity to meet Norma. So happy the Library acquired her materials.

  2. Pingback: Behind the Scenes: Processing the Butter Cow Lady’s Papers | Cardinal Tales

  3. Pingback: Norma Lyon: The Woman Behind the Butter Cow | Cardinal Tales

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