Norma ‘Duffy’ Lyon, queen of the butter cow sculptors, dies at 81


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In the high-cholesterol world of Midwestern state fairs, where dairy cows crowd 4-H barns and no food can escape the deep fryer, Norma “Duffy” Lyon was a giant.


For more than four decades, she was the queen of the butter sculpture.

Cows. Elvis. Garth Brooks. President Eisenhower. A Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Jesus at the Last Supper. With her steady hands, Lyon molded and shaped massive blocks of frozen fat into life-size forms that were part humble craft, part high art.

On Sunday, Lyon’s family announced the sad news: The artist died this weekend of a stroke. She was 81.

Her medium may seem strange to some, but Lyon was surrounded by her raw material. She spent much of her life on a dairy farm and studied animal science at Iowa State University. While at school, family members say, she discovered her love of sculpting.

After she and her husband Joe married, they moved to Toledo, Iowa, and ran the family dairy, Lyon Jerseys. According to media reports, the Lyons had nine children, 23 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Lyon first picked up her culinary chisel for the Iowa State Fair in 1960. Though the tradition of using butter to create figurines dates back to before Columbus arrived in America, the ‘butter cow’ has been an iconic feature of the annual summer gathering in Des Moines since the early 1900s. Fair officials say the heartland tradition may date back even earlier.

Back then, artists often opted for lard.

Lyon’s cows were no tiny figurines. They typically stood more than 5 feet tall, were made out of 600 pounds of Iowa butter and were showcased in a 40-degree refrigerated building. Each cow, according to the Midwest Dairy Assn., was enough to butter 19,200 slices of toast. Lyon often reused the butter for years, in order to recycle her materials, and was known to keep a keen eye on the thermostat.


There are, after all, inherent problems with using butter as a medium. In 2000, the temperature inside her display case in the fair’s Agriculture Building went up slightly. Suddenly, her cow’s belly slid off. (A rushed order for more butterfat helped her repair the damage.)

Over time, Lyon expanded her portfolio. In 1997, she unveiled a 6-foot replica of Elvis, complete with butter microphone, a curly lock of butter hair falling down his forehead, his mouth open and buttery lips curled.

People clamored to see the King in the refrigerated dairy case at the fair. The line stretched past the Iowa Turkey Federation exhibit, past the Iowa Egg Council booth, out beyond the free beef and pork samples.

She said at the time that she had initially wanted to sculpt Elvis out of white tallow, but beef officials ‘didn’t want anything to do with it. They’re so down on fat, they almost had a fit. I knew the butter people would jump on it.’

[Updated at 4:48 p.m.: This year marks the Iowa State Fair’s 100th year of butter cow statues. Fair officials said in a statement that plans are underway to honor Duffy and her role in the butter exhibit this August.

Lyon’s memorial mass is scheduled for Friday at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Tama, Iowa.]


For the record, 7:05 p.m.: A previous version of this post said Lyon studied animal science at Iowa State College. It was Iowa State University.


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Photo (top): Norma “Duffy” Lyon stands next to a life-size dairy cow she sculpted from butter at the 2003 Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. Photo (lower): Lyon works on a butter sculpture of golfer Tiger Woods in 2005. Credits: Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press