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worshipping the butter cow
an iowa girl goes home to remember
by jj freyermuth

Growing up in Iowa, you could be assured of three things - the winter would be long, culminating in one final big, huge snow storm sometime around the Girl’s State Basketball Championship in March. Spring brought the threat of tornadoes, but it also brought gardens and flowers and outdoor play. Summertime meant no school and the best state fair of any state fair…ever…anywhere.

In our family, we couldn’t afford a regular summer vacation, so the Iowa State Fair became our family holiday. It was magical. My mother would wake us early in the morning and we would pile into whatever piece of junk car we were driving at the time and head down to the eastside of Des Moines, to the fairgrounds. We usually parked in someone’s lawn which offered a boost to their family income of around five dollars.

We had our individual strategies - what needed to be eaten when, what stage shows to watch at what time, how to tackle the variety of buildings that housed country wares, prize-winning pies, blue ribbon livestock, and, of course, the indefinable and much beloved Butter Cow. The Butter Cow was always top on our list. You wanted to make sure you visited this piece of art first thing in the morning before the lines stretched out beyond comprehension.

For those of you unfamiliar with the mysterious ways of Iowans, the Butter Cow tradition stems back one hundred years. In 1911, the very first Butter Cow was sculpted for the Iowa State Fair. Since then, there have been five Butter Cow sculptors who have crafted these life-sized animals weighing in at 600 pounds (of good ol’ Iowa butter) and standing about five and a half feet tall. Norma “Duffy” Lyon, being the longest running sculptor, sculpted these beloved bovines for 46 years. She didn’t stop there either. In addition to the Butter Cow, you will find a companion butter sculpture of whatever is of import at the time. Duffy sculpted a variety of intricate and detailed companion pieces including; Elvis Presley, John Wayne, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” and astonishingly enough a replica of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”. She turned over the buttery reigns to current sculptor, Sarah Pratt in 2006. Duffy Lyon (a.k.a. The Butter Cow Lady) passed away in June of this year, just a few months before the fair and the celebration of the Butter Cow’s 100th anniversary.

I haven’t lived in Iowa for more than a decade. I hadn’t been back for more than five years. But this year, I knew it was time to reconnect with family and celebrate our state fair heritage. Mom has been gone for eight years. My siblings and I have all moved on to families of our own, but for one day it was as if 30 years had not passed. For one beautiful day, the magic of the Iowa State Fair caught our imaginations and we were all kids again. The smells, the food (a large variety and much of it finely prepared and delivered to you on a stick), the plethora of Iowa folk searching for stages, rides, and goodies. The weather was perfect and the Butter Cow, that golden idol that all of us Iowans love and worship, was as glorious and illuminating as ever.

I was able to share the day, not only with my big brother and sister, but also my kids, my husband, nieces, nephews, and several thousands of Iowans who know how significant and wonderful our state fair truly is.

In some way I know our mother was there with us. I know her presence was felt by the family she raised. Our family life growing up wasn’t easy, but through the fair, our mother taught us the joy of simply having fun together. She taught us that where you come from matters no matter where life may end up taking you.

So, here’s to the amazing Butter Cow, to families who treat the Iowa State Fair as a sacred rite, and to remembering where you come from no matter where you’ve been. Our state fair IS the best state fair!


JJ Freyermuth is a mother, wife, writer and editor currently living and working in the bustling metropolis of Casa Grande, Arizona. Armed with a Pentel RSVP ballpoint pen and a three subject notebook, she usually writes interesting, heart-warming and sometimes odd articles on life in small town desert territory and the joy of being a middle-aged woman with a teen-aged brain. She is sure to leave you laughing, crying, scratching your head, or just plain sighing with general contentment.

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tracey kelley
8.24.11 @ 11:10a

So sorry i couldn't connect with you on your Midwest trek, dear one, but it sounds like you had a blast!

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