Portrait of Sarah Pratt, a butter sculpture for Iowa State Fair

Dairy Queen

Sarah Pratt was an aspiring farm girl who dreamed of adventure. Then she began sculpting the world’s most famous butter cow.

Without the butter—600 pounds of good Iowa dairy—there is just the skeletal frame in a refrigerated room that stinks like blue cheese.

In May, Des Moines is still thawing out after a long winter. The Iowa State Fair won’t start for another three months. The fairgrounds are quiet, although a few families are out enjoying the beautiful spring day. It’s especially silent inside the Agriculture Building. Sunlight pours in to fill the open exhibition space and make the dust motes dance. Sarah Pratt is here for the first time since last summer, walking along a wall lined by large display cases. She stops to peer through the glass at a familiar sight: the armature that she will soon transform into the world’s most famous butter sculpture.

This summer, at state fairs around the country, crowds will line up to see Pratt’s creation and others like it. More than 100 years since food art became a staple of American fairs and expositions, butter sculptures remain objects of curiosity, an offbeat mix of art and Americana. After all, who wouldn’t want to gaze upon something beautiful molded out of something you slather on toast? These sculptures also continue as icons of a changing but deeply cherished way of life, and as a potent source of civic pride. That’s especially true in Iowa, where few things are as iconic or beloved as the butter cow.

Right now, it’s wood and wire and steel, its shape only appearing somewhat bovine. Maybe. If you squint. But have faith. This will soon become the pride and joy of the Iowa State Fair—an enduring symbol of American bounty, a tribute to dairy farmers and to old-school rustic values of can-do-it-ness. Pratt, 42, a special education teacher who lives in West Des Moines, knows the butter cow better than anyone. For decades, first as an apprentice and then as the fifth sculptor in the cow’s more than century-long history at the fair, she has spent part of every summer covering this bare frame with gobs and gobs of Midwestern gold.

In August, by the time the fair begins, the butter cow will be finished, looking back at you with its surprisingly pretty eyes. And inside the display case, which is kept at 42 degrees Fahrenheit, cold enough to cause unacclimated hands to swell up like balloons after a few minutes, Pratt will continue working on a second sculpture, which she’ll create after consulting with officials from the fair and the Midwest Dairy Association. She’s done characters from Star Trek and Harry Potter. Last year it was a tractor, for John Deere’s 100th anniversary. She’d like to eventually do Albert Einstein, who she admires for his contributions to science as well as his “crazy hair.” Pratt’s 15-year-old twin daughters will be beside her, helping. Her husband and her 7-year-old son, assistants if not outright apprentices, may be there too.

On the other side of the glass, the building will bustle with fairgoers. They’ll check out the exhibitors and get ice cream from the Dairy Barn. And they’ll jump in the long line of people waiting to see Pratt’s workspace. Many of the fair’s 1 million visitors will join this procession. Just like their parents did, and just like their children will. Beyond the novelty of the butter, this is what the sculpture represents.

But to really understand the butter cow, you’ll have to first go back to when a girl from a small town in Iowa was invited to spend the night at the fair.

Pratt uses several tools, including her fingernails, to bring the cow to life.

Farming is in the family DNA. Pratt’s grandfather was a hog farmer in Tama, Iowa. Her mother and father were raised there. Her early years were also spent in Tama, but Pratt grew up mostly in nearby Toledo, in an apartment above the pharmacy her parents ran. She remembers the baby pigs on her grandfather’s farm and regular visits to see cousins. The legendary Norma “Duffy” Lyon, who had been sculpting the cow at the Iowa State Fair since 1960, was a family friend.

One year, when Pratt was about 14, Lyon’s great-niece invited her to the fair. The Lyons would be exhibiting some of their dairy cows, and the girls could stay at the fairgrounds, sleeping on bales of hay and getting the cows ready for prime time. For a girl with farm dreams and a membership in 4-H, it sounded like a lot of fun. It was. The trouble was that she had never before worked with cows on a dairy farm.

“When they said, ‘Head down to the washing station and get them washed up for show,’ I thought, OK, I can do that. And I made a huge mess,” Pratt says. “I just squirted soap all over the cow, and it took an extra hour to wash it all out. So I got a little bit fired from that job.”

She was reassigned to help Lyon, also known widely as the “butter cow lady.” Pratt couldn’t have asked for a better teacher than Lyon, who sculpted for the fair for 46 years and died in 2011 at the age of 81. Lyon was synonymous with butter sculpting, undertaking ambitious projects that expanded the purview of the art, making everything from a life-size Elvis Presley to a diorama of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper.” And she was perfectly suited to the role of spokeswoman for Iowa dairy: Lyon had married a dairy farmer and studied animal science at Iowa State University.

She might spend hours perfecting the veins on an udder.

Lyon’s self-assuredness was on full display in 1959, when she came across a photo of the previous year’s butter cow, then sculpted by an artist whose background was in political cartoons. Lyon, who had shown a knack for sculpture while she was in college, didn’t care for his caricature style and preferred a more realist approach that honored both the cow and the history of butter sculpting. She told officials she could do better—and did just that when she was invited to help out. The next year, she was named the official sculptor, a role she held for nearly half a century. “She was very bold and never backed down from a challenge. I admired that about her. She was always pushing the edge of what was expected of women,” Pratt says. “She was ahead of her time.”

Lyon was also warm and encouraging, and happy to share her art with the world—she never said no to a commission or a media interview request, traveling to do sculptures for other state fairs and often appearing on national television—and with her best student. In Pratt’s first year as an assistant, she cleaned buckets, mostly. Lyon invited Pratt to come back the next year, and the year after that. Each time, Pratt learned a little more and took on more responsibilities. One of her earliest duties was smoothing out the bumps and imperfections in the sculpture.

Lyon started telling anyone who asked that Pratt would eventually take over. Pratt had other plans. She went to college at the University of Northern Iowa. She dreamed of becoming a teacher and traveling Europe. But after Lyon suffered a stroke in 1997, Pratt got even more involved, helping her mentor with the work while ensuring that Lyon stuck to her schedule and took her medication. Outside of her summers as the sculptor’s apprentice, Pratt’s life continued. She got her degree and went to work as a teacher. She fell in love with a jazz musician, Andy, and got married. After she had her twin daughters, Hannah and Grace, she temporarily quit teaching full time. This was around 2005, when Lyon retired and called to say that now, Pratt really was taking over.

“I tried to tell her, ‘No, I can’t do it,’” Pratt says. “And she said, ‘Oh, I already told them you are. And this is the day you’re starting, and this is the day the butter’s coming.’” It was hard to argue with that.

In 2014, Pratt sculpted Kevin Costner’s character from Field of Dreams.

Pratt works under a heavy burden of expectations. Her challenge is to honor the legacy of her predecessor as well as her own voice. And like many artists before her, she also has to please her patrons: the Midwest Dairy Association and the Iowa State Fair, not counting the other fairs, including ones in Illinois and Oklahoma, that she has done work for. Then there are the fairgoers. The butter sculptures belong to the people, and Iowans rightly take a sense of ownership of their state’s biggest event, says Iowa State Fair marketing director Mindy Williamson. Some change is inevitable, but fairgoers are protective of their traditions, including butter sculpting.

The process starts with, well, butter, about 600 pounds of it. Salted. It holds better that way. Low-moisture butter is best. Pratt, who makes an effort not to waste anything, emphasizes that in Iowa she’s been reusing the same butter, give or take a couple hundred pounds, since 2006. (That explains the blue cheese smell. The newer butter, which has a richer yellow color but is more difficult to shape, has a mozzarella odor, she says.)

The main elements of the armature have been in place for at least a couple decades, but the frames for the secondary sculptures can require extensive tinkering. The wood and wire infrastructure of last year’s John Deere tractor, leaned against a wall in the hallway leading to the back of the glass display booth, looks like an elaborate medieval weapon the size of a horse—or a cow. There’s a welder Pratt likes for the difficult jobs, but Andy got her some welding equipment as a birthday gift a few years back, and she’s taken a few classes.

Before any butter touches the armature, however, there’s the study and the sketching. Pratt’s first year as the lead butter sculptor, Lyon took her out to the farm, and the women drove around on a golf cart. Lyon pointed at each cow they passed: “This cow has very nice front legs. And this cow has the best udder. Notice how straight this one’s back is.” And then they would sketch. These days Pratt will watch videos of dairy shows online, to observe cows in motion. The goal is to create the platonic ideal of a dairy cow. The perfect cow. For that reason, she uses different photos of various cows for reference. Every summer, the cow is familiar, but one of a kind. She prefers Jersey cows for their “big, dark, beautiful eyes” and long eyelashes, but has also sculpted Ayrshires and Holsteins.

Over the years, Pratt’s confidence has grown, as have her
abilities. With her eye for detail, she may spend hours perfecting the veins on an udder. Most of her tools would be known to any clay sculptor. Others, like some items used to spread fondant on cakes, would be more familiar to a baker. A few are custom-made. The material, too, is similar to clay, only smellier. Pratt relies a lot on her hands. Fingernails and the warmth of the human body are both invaluable. So is time.

The actual sculpting of the butter cow usually takes about a week to complete. The secondary piece can take longer, and there are often a lot of late nights in the Agriculture Building as her deadline approaches. Like most sculpture, working with butter requires a keen sense of proportions. When Pratt teaches the art, as she has begun doing in recent years, her class will begin by discussing the importance of scale. Her students build an armature with a foam board and a metal bolt, then apply papier-mache that Pratt has dyed yellow. When they’re ready, they’ll use a stick of butter and the frame to sculpt a famous work of architecture, from two-story buildings to soaring skyscrapers. How closely the butter building resembles its real-world inspiration, like how closely a butter cow resembles its model, depends on how its various parts relate to each other.

Working with butter also poses some particular challenges. Temperature, for one thing. Pratt has about 40 pounds of old butter in her freezer at home, which she and her daughters will occasionally use for smaller pieces. In the winter, her garage is cold enough to preserve the butter’s form. The rest of the year, the art needs to go in the freezer. Accidents have to be fixed. Butter melts and cracks. An udder has to be reattached. A kneeling figure topples over and needs to become a sitting figure.

Pratt’s family members have been her most accomplished students and her most valuable assistants. Her parents have suggested ideas for the secondary sculpture. She’ll consult with her brother, an engineer, and her sister when she gets stuck. Andy helps with everything from butter prep to armature transportation (getting a Tilt-A-Whirl frame from Iowa to the Tulsa State Fair in Oklahoma was a recent task) to watching the kids. One year, when the twins were younger, Pratt sat them on a piece of butcher paper and gave each a piece of wire and some butter. Grace made a butter crown and waved regally at fairgoers through the glass. In the last couple years, the girls have taken a more hands-on role. Even Dean, at 7 years old, is a fount of good ideas, suggesting the possibility of a sculpture made from nacho cheese.

Hannah wants to be an art teacher. Grace isn’t sure yet. They’ll always have a summer job, at least. The twins have known they’re next in line to sculpt butter for the Iowa State Fair for as long as people have been asking.

When Pratt was her daughters’ age, she wanted to be Indiana Jones, an archaeologist who would teach during the school year and then set off on epic adventures. Her life had gone in a different direction. But, Hannah pointed out, it hadn’t. Not really. Pratt became a teacher. And when fair season comes along, she gets to become something else. “It’s not the adventure I had thought about when I was younger, but it is true,” Pratt says. “I get to have this adventure every summer.”

As the Tibetan monks who have long carved sacred figures from butter will tell you, nothing in life is permanent. But all traditions come from somewhere. In the Western world, the use of food art as table settings for elaborate banquets and upper-crust parties dates back hundreds of years. However, it was in the U.S. that butter sculptures became more egalitarian symbols. In Corn Palaces and Butter Queens, her book on America’s love affair with butter sculptures and their ilk, art historian Pamela H. Simpson writes that food art “may have begun on the tables of the wealthy and powerful, but its audiences democratically expanded at local festivals, state fairs, and international expositions.”

Caroline Shawk Brooks, an Arkansan who began dabbling in food art to drum up some extra cash after her farm’s cotton crop went wrong, was the first American butter sculptor. Her “Dreaming Iolanthe,” exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, was a sensation. Brooks’ tender portrayal of the blind princess, which, pre-refrigeration, was carefully packaged and transported in ice, was described by a reporter at the time as having “a richness beyond alabaster and a softness and smoothness that are very striking.”

Others followed, especially as Midwestern farmers saw the opportunity to advertise and romanticize their business at a time when industrialization and new technology were changing the face of farming. Professional sculptor John K. Daniels began doing butter work by commission in 1900. He sculpted a replica of the Minnesota State Capitol for the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, and in 1911, he sculpted the Iowa State Fair’s first butter cow.

“Even though butter sculpting has been around for centuries, it has this mystique.”

As butter sculptures spread to American fairs and expositions in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they were seen as “icons of abundance,” Simpson writes. “They evoked an image of the nation as a New Eden and a land of plenty. They affirmed national policies of expansion and contemporary beliefs in the blessings of divine providence.”

That’s no longer the case, although the sculptures remain a celebration of dairy farmers, a tribute to the hard work and the beauty of a rural way of life far removed from many fairgoers’ daily experience. “Sometimes people see a product in a store and they forget the face behind it,” Pratt says. But the mentality of abundance has shifted, she says, to one of conservation. What’s important now is the continuity.

“It’s something that people can remember from their childhood and revisit and pass on to their kids,” Pratt says. “And it’s quirky and unique and interesting and different. Even though [butter sculpting] has been around for centuries, it still has this mystique.”

Different customs exist at different fairs. In 2013, for the size-obsessed State Fair of Texas, artist Sharon BuMann used 4,000 pounds of butter for a rendition of Big Tex, the Lone Star State’s loud, towering cowboy statue.

For 47 years and counting, Linda Christensen has been the butter sculptor at the Minnesota State Fair, where every summer she creates 90-pound busts of each of the 12 dairy princesses who qualify as finalists in the Princess Kay of the Milky Way pageant. Christensen works with live models in front of an audience. She carves each “butter head” from a block, one per day throughout the fair’s run.

These traditions will continue, even as the world celebrated by butter sculptures undergoes upheaval. Battered by low milk prices and a consolidating industry, dairy farms have disappeared at a stunning rate—there are now about 40,000 dairy farms in the U.S., compared to nearly 650,000 in 1970. (This even as butter consumption in the U.S. neared a 50-year record high in 2017.) But the butter cow never goes anywhere, even if it spends most of the year as a skeleton in an empty cooler.

“We talk about ephemeral art as part of the class I teach,” Pratt says. “I think it’s essential. We talk about resiliency and the act of being able to let something go. It’s not going to be permanent. That’s the nature of our butter sculptures. We build them, and then the next day we tear them down, and we build something else.”

Pratt, still a farm girl at heart, has talked to her family about how, in the future, they could move from their two-story home in West Des Moines to somewhere more rural. “We would live out in the country, taking care of animals and just being outside,” she says. It’s not a sure thing. Not much is. Count on this, though. Soon, Sarah Pratt and her family will create the butter cow at the Iowa State Fair. Later, they’ll bring it down. Next summer, they’ll do it all again.

Alex Macon is an editor of this magazine. Email him at alex.macon@paceco.com.

Photography by Kevin J. Miyazaki (Sarah Pratt), Scott Olson/Getty Images (Kevin Costner butter sculpture); photography courtesy of Iowa State Fair

Originally Published July 2019