Alumna butters up Iowans

Matt Kuhns

Iowa State alumna Norma “Duffy” Lyon has more uses for butter than strictly cooking.

Since 1960, Lyon’s butter cow sculptures have created a buzz among Iowa State Fair-goers.

Kathie Swift, marketing director of the Iowa State Fair, said Lyon’s cow can still attract a crowd.

“It quickly became apparent to me that the butter cow is a fantastic attraction,” said Swift, who has worked at the fair since 1978.

This year will mark the 40th anniversary of the debut of Lyon’s butter cow at the Iowa State Fair.

Since 1960, Lyon has traveled to state fairs across the country and in Canada displaying her sculptures created from dairy products.

Though she’s been at it for 38 years, Lyon hasn’t tired.

Lyon said butter, though not a traditional medium, is not difficult to work with. But she said there is one drawback: To avoid melting the sculpture, her work area has to be kept fairly cold.

“I can stand the cold a lot better than I used to,” Lyon said.

She said she gets so caught up in her work that people have to remind her to take a break to warm up.

Years ago, Lyon could complete a cow in three days, but now her craft takes a bit more time.

“My hands aren’t as steady as they used to be; it takes longer,” she said.

After the fair closes, she usually disassembles her sculptures immediately. Much of the butter is stored and reused the next year.

Lyon does not limit herself to cows; her first non-bovine butter sculpture was of carousel horses. Since then, she has fashioned a butter Elvis, Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Garth Brooks, which gained national attention. This year she plans to depict the Last Supper.

Sculpting human figures has been particularly challenging for Lyon.

“People are difficult — it’s taken me a long time,” she said.

Lyon, a resident of Toledo, left her home state of Tennessee in 1948 to pursue an animal science degree at ISU.

In addition to animal science, Lyon also was interested in art and enrolled in two sculpture courses while at ISU. That experience was noteworthy because not only did she apply knowledge gained from these classes later in life, but she was also instructed by famous sculptor Christian Peterson.

“That was the greatest help,” Lyon said of her classes with Peterson, adding that she enjoyed both courses.

After graduating in 1951, Lyon said she decided to start a family.

In addition to raising nine children, Lyon spent much of her time working with dairy cows on her farm, experience that would eventually pay off.

Besides sculpting butter cows and Garth Brooks, Lyon said she maintains a full schedule.

Lyon works on the family’s farm and is involved with a number of organizations, including her church and the State of Iowa Veterinary Medicine Board. She also draws and paints in her spare time — mostly for family members.

Recently, author Brenda Mickle, another ISU alumna, wrote “The Butter Cow Lady,” a biography detailing Lyon’s life.

Mickle said when she first suggested writing the biography, Lyon “kind of had this shocked look on her face” but agreed to the idea.

Lyon said she was pleased with the book.

“I think she did a great job,” she said.