(July 29, 1929 - June 26, 2011)
Norma “Duffy” Lyon was a strong verbal and visual advocate for the dairy industry in Iowa and throughout the United States. She lovingly became known as “The Butter Cow Lady,” and until her retirement in 2006, Iowa State Fair visitors around the country would stand in line to see her butter sculpture creations.
Norma Duffield Stong was born on July 29, 1929 in Nashville, Tennessee. Her father’s family was from Keosauqua, Iowa where she lived for a few years as a young girl. Moving back to Tennessee following her parent’s divorce, Norma often returned to Keosauqua during her summer breaks. Norma grew up in an artistic family including her maternal uncle, Phil Stong, who wrote the book State Fair, which inspired the Broadway musical and movie.
Norma Stong enrolled at Iowa State College in the fall of 1947. She had an intense love of horses that began as a young child and steered her towards an interest in veterinary medicine. Women were not allowed to enroll in veterinary medicine courses, so she settled on Animal Husbandry as her major. It was after she arrived at Iowa State College that she decided she wanted to be called Duffy, a shortened version of her middle name, and it stuck.1
Duffy was highly involved at Iowa State College including participating in the Block and Bridle Club, the Iowa State Singers, VEISHEA planning, and her sorority, Alpha Delta Pi. One winter, along with her sorority sisters, Duffy created a snow sculpture of horses pulling a sleigh that caught the attention of Iowa State artist-in-residence, Christian Petersen. Petersen sought Duffy out and encouraged her to take his sculpture classes. She accepted his offer and took two classes with the noted Regionalist sculptor.
It was through her sorority that Duffy met another man who would become an important part of her life. Joe Lyon was a Dairy Husbandry student and member of the Farm House fraternity. The two dated and were married on July 22nd, 1950 at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Ames. Both Duffy and Joe graduated with their agriculture degrees in March of 1951. They moved to Toledo, Iowa following graduation to work at Joe’s family dairy farm, Lyon Jerseys Dairy Farm. Joe and Duffy Lyon had nine children, seven of whom were Iowa State graduates, four of them in Dairy Science.
The dairy industry commissioned the first butter cow at the Iowa State Fair in 1911, and it was sculpted by J. E. Wallace. In 1958, Lyon saw an image of that year’s butter cow, which was sculpted by Frank Dutt, and claimed she could do a much better job.2 In 1959, she assisted Dutt with the butter cow, and in 1960, she replaced him as the butter cow sculptor, becoming the third butter cow sculptor at the Iowa State Fair. Her knowledge of cow anatomy from working on the family dairy farm combined with her college experiences of studying with the artist Christian Petersen and taking courses on animal judging gave her the talent and knowledge to sculpt incredibly life-like and life-size sculptures of various breeds of dairy cows.
What started at the Iowa State Fair quickly broadened to include other state fairs and dairy events around the country. She was the first person to sculpt a butter cow at the nation’s largest county fair, the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona, California.3 Lyon’s prolific butter sculptures had a positive impact on the dairy industry.
In 1984, Lyon began adding other characters in addition to her butter cow sculpture at the Iowa State Fair. These characters were often based on current events and popular culture. Many times she would complete the butter cow prior to the Fair opening and would work on the other characters during the Fair so viewers could see her at work. One of her most notable and national media attention getting was a recreation of The Last Supper she made in 1999. In 1996, she recreated Grant Wood’s American Gothic as part of the celebration of Iowa’s Sesquicentennial, which she considered one of her best.4 In celebration of her Iowa State College teacher and a major retrospective exhibition of his art, in 2000 Lyon recreated Christian Petersen’s iconic sculpture of The Gentle Doctor for the Iowa State Fair crowd. She again received national media attention in 2007 when she sculpted then presidential candidate Barack Obama in butter and recorded an endorsement video for his campaign.
Lyon appeared on national television programs including Late Night with David Letterman, Today, and To Tell the Truth and has been featured in national publications including LIFE, Time, and People Magazine. She also received several awards including 1990 Dairy Woman of the Year at the World Dairy Expo, Iowa State Fair Parade Grand Marshall in 1997, and Outstanding Lifetime Accomplishment Award from the Iowa State Fair which was awarded jointly to her and her husband in 2006. Additionally in 2006, Lyon retired from butter sculpting and her mentee, Sarah Pratt, took over her butter cow role at the Iowa State Fair.
While her preferred medium was butter, Lyon has also sculpted out of other food products including chocolate, cheese, lard, and tallow in addition to the more traditional medium of clay. In 2007, she created the sculpture Jersey Jewel for the ISU Dairy Farm. Originally sculpted in clay, it was cast in bronze and installed at the Dairy Farm entrance and is now a permanent part of the Art on Campus Collection at Iowa State completing a circle that began with her sculpture classes with Christian Petersen.
Norma “Duffy” Lyon died in Marshalltown, Iowa on June 26, 2011 at the age of 81. Her obituary ran in newspapers nationwide including the New York Times, which titled it “Norma Lyon, the ‘Butter Cow Lady’, Dies at 81.” Her husband, Joe Lyon, passed away in 2020.
Green, B. The Butter Cow Lady: the Story of Norma "Duffy" Lyon. Des Moines, Iowa: Target Pub, 1998.
Simpson, Pamela H. Corn Palaces and Butter Queens: a History of Crop Art and Dairy Sculpture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
Vitello, Paul. “Norma Lyon, the ‘Butter Cow Lady,’ Dies at 81.” New York Times, June 27, 2011.
Butter Cow website. https://www.iowastatefair.org/about/butter-cow