Iowa's 'Butter Cow Lady,' A 'Born Artist,' Has Died : The Two-Way Norma "Duffy" Lyon was such a legend in her home state that in 2007 then-candidate Barack Obama sought — and won — her endorsement before the Iowa presidential caucuses.
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Iowa's 'Butter Cow Lady,' A 'Born Artist,' Has Died

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Iowa's 'Butter Cow Lady,' A 'Born Artist,' Has Died

Iowa's 'Butter Cow Lady,' A 'Born Artist,' Has Died

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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We turn now from Iowa politics to something a bit more pasteurized. Norma Duffy Lyon, best known as the Butter Cow Lady, died Sunday at the age of 81. For more than four decades, her life-like butter sculptures were a main attraction at the Iowa State Fair. She sculpted 46 butter cows over the years, but also a butter Elvis, a butter Tiger Woods and, her most ambitious project, a one ton butter and diorama of The Last Supper.

Well, to help us remember Duffy Lyon, we're joined by her protege Sarah Pratt, a schoolteacher who took over sculpting duties in 2006. Sarah, welcome to the program.

SARAH PRATT: Thank you. Hello.

BLOCK: And how did butter sculpting start for you with Norma Lyon?

PRATT: Well, when I was about 14 years old, I was in 4H and I was good friends Carrie Lyon(ph), her great-niece. And she invited me to come and stay in the barn, while she went and showed cattle at the Iowa State Fair. And so, because I lived in town and didn't know how to show a cow or clean a cow or milk the cow, they sent me up to the egg building to help Norma. And at that time, she put me to work cleaning buckets and tools and softening butter. And the following year she called me and asked me to join her again and it kind of started from there.

BLOCK: When you are working with her, would you have crowds gathered to watch what you're doing?

PRATT: Absolutely. There was people everywhere and lots of media coming in to interview her, and just lines and lines of people waiting to see her sculptures.

BLOCK: It's interesting to read about Duffy Lyon's background. She was really kind of a triple threat in the butter cow sculpture world. She had a degree in animal science from college. She also studied sculpture. And she's a lifelong dairy farmer.

PRATT: She knew everything there was to know about the dairy cow, and how to sculpt, and how to sculpt the dairy cow. So she just was the excellent sculptress and a wonderful teacher.

BLOCK: Did Norma Lyon talk to you at all over the years about why, what was it about sculpting out of butter that she liked so much?

PRATT: Well, I think she was a born artist. She would tell me stories. When she was little girl she would draw horses and then, you know, did a lot of drawing and painting as a child. And when she got to college, she had sculpted a snow sculpture for a competition. And no matter what the medium was going to be, she was going to be an artist.

BLOCK: Yeah. And I've read that she thought the people who preceded her as butter sculptors really weren't that great, that she could do better.


PRATT: There is a story that she told me that the man who had taken over for the man who had done it for quite a while - so there was like a temporary person who had done it for one year - and she saw his sculpture, and approached some people she knew on the fair board and said: I think I can do better than that.

BLOCK: Sarah, what was the best advice that Duffy Lyon gave you during the years that you sculpted butter cows together?

PRATT: Oh, the biggest thing she gave me was the confidence that I could - that I was capable of doing the sculpture. And it took years and years of her training and support and encouragement for me to believe in myself. And so for that I will be forever indebted.

BLOCK: Well, Sarah Pratt, thanks for talking to us about Norma Duffy Lyon. We appreciate it.

PRATT: I would just, I guess, add that she is such a legend to everybody and near and dear to my heart. And so I thank you for the opportunity to share a little bit about my experience with her.

BLOCK: Sarah Pratt, who sculpts butter cows at the Iowa State Fair, talking about Norma Duffy Lyon of Toledo, Iowa. Lyon died on Sunday of a stroke. She was 81.

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