Norma Lyon: The Woman Behind the Butter Cow

Today’s post is brought to you by another of SCUA’s fabulous student workers, Zoe. She has been processing a collection we have posted about before (see the first and second posts), although today she brings a new perspective to our final post about ISU alumnus Norma “Duffy” Lyon, aka “The Butter Cow Lady” (Collection RS 21/7/280). We hope you enjoy a behind the scenes look at the life of Norma, a woman who helped shape the Iowa State Fair, which is currently happening.

This collection (the Norma Lyon papers, RS 21/7/280) is open for research, and more information can be requested by contacting us.

 – Rosalie Gartner
Lead Processing Archivist


 

While many know her simply as the Butter Cow Lady, there is much more to Norma “Duffy” Lyon than just her creamy dairy creations. While working on this collection, I have learned all about her life and career as a sculptor and would like to share what I have learned with you.

Image 001, College Photo

Norma “Duffy” Stong, the ISU Harvest Ball Queen, 1948

Lyon was born Norma Duffield Stong, an Iowa farm girl with a passion for animals. In order to turn this passion into a career, Norma studied Animal Husbandry at ISU, earning her Bachelor of Science in 1951. During her time at Iowa State University, her sculpting talents were recognized. The Artist-in-Residence of the University, Christian Petersen, saw an ice and snow sculpture done by Norma and encouraged her to attend his sculpting classes. Thus, Norma began to refine her talent as an artist.

Image 002, First Sculpture

Alpha Delta Pi Winter Festival sculpture, 1949

After graduating, Norma married her college sweetheart Joe Lyon, and the two moved to Toledo, Iowa, to open Lyon Jerseys, where they raised dairy cattle. In 1960, Norma was asked to take over the job of carving the butter cow for the Iowa State Fair.

Image 003, First Butter Cow

Norma sculpting her first butter cow, 1960

She carved cows for the fair for the next 46 years, each one unique and showing an exquisite amount of detail that only a master of the craft could accomplish. Her sculptures attracted visitors from all over Iowa, each one wanting a glance at the famous life-sized butter cow.

Norma was not just a sculptor of cattle! During her career, she carved various animal statues at fairs across the Midwest, always returning to the Iowa State Fair to showcase her greatest works. She continued to show her passion for horses in particular, sculpting several over the years.

Image 006, Butter Horses

Horse and foal butter sculpture, Iowa State Fair, 1984

In 1994, with the approval of the Fair officials, Norma expanded her repertoire even further with the addition of people. Her first displayed sculpture of a human subject was none other than country legend Garth Brooks. Fair-goers loved the addition, and from that point on she added many more buttery likenesses of everyone from Elvis to Tiger Woods (with a life sized tiger included)!

Image 007, Garth Brooks.jpg

Garth Brooks butter sculpture, 1994

It comes as no surprise that Duffy Lyon garnered recognition on a national scale. She crafted butter busts of Katie Couric, Matt Lauer, Barack Obama, and a cheddar cheese bust of David Letterman. Norma appeared on the game show To Tell the Truth and the popular talk show The Late Show with David Letterman – she even brought Mr. Letterman a tiny cow carved out of cheese.

Image 008, Norma and her Butter Cow

Norma with one of her final butter cows, undated

A statue stands in Norma’s home town of Toledo, Iowa, commemorating the famous Iowa State Fair butter cow, and in turn celebrating her term as its sculptor. The town’s welcome sign proudly declares, “Home of the Butter Cow Lady!” Norma carved her final butter cow in 2006, passing on the mantle of butter sculptor to her mentee, Sarah Pratt. While the job title may have passed on to a new sculptor, Norma “Duffy” Lyon will always be remembered as the original Butter Cow Lady.

 

Image 009, Posing with Statue.jpg

Norma Lyon at the unveiling of her commemorative statue in Toledo, Iowa. Undated.

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