State fair favorite, 'butter cow lady' dies

06/29/2011 12:00 AM

06/29/2011 10:56 AM

Norma "Duffy" Lyon, whose life-size butter sculptures of cows, Elvis and even Jesus and his disciples delighted Iowa and Kansas state fairgoers for nearly half a century, has died. She was 81.

Lyon suffered a stroke at her rural home Sunday and died shortly after at a hospital, Michelle Juhl, one of Lyon's nine children, said Monday.

Known to most people as the "butter cow lady," Lyon was pregnant with her seventh child when she produced her first bovine butter sculpture, a 600-pound cow, for the Iowa State Fair in 1959.

The rural Toledo housewife went on to sculpt a butter cow every year until she retired in 2006, and along the way also sculpted the likes of Garth Brooks, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, Smokey Bear and other images in her 40-degree refrigerated showcase at the fair.

She also created butter sculptures for the Kansas State Fair for 39 years.

"I like Kansas," she told The Eagle in 1998. "I've got friends here."

The Iowa State Fair has featured a butter cow every year since 1911.

While Lyon wasn't the inventor of the butter cow, she did expand the medium during her time as a butter sculptor for the state fair.

She began carving companion pieces in 1984, starting with a horse and foal.

In 1996, Lyon re-created Iowa artist Grant Wood's "American Gothic," the famous painting of a stern-faced man and woman with a pitchfork in front of a farmhouse.

The following year, Lyon suffered a stroke, but recovered in time to sculpt the traditional cow and a 6-foot likeness of Elvis Presley that fairgoers lined up around the building that housed it to see.

In 1999, Lyon took on what was arguably her most ambitious project: Her own rendition of the biblical story of the Last Supper.

Lyon is survived by her husband, G. Joe Lyon, nine children, 23 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

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