How now butter cow?

How now butter cow?

It’s part of our annual Illinois State Fair Dance. We’d eaten a ribeye sandwich and a roasted cob of sweetcorn. We hit the Expo Building for the pitches and free samples. The afternoon sun said it was time…time for the cool embrace of that familiar structure over on the east side of the Fairgrounds. We stepped into the Dairy Building and fell into the flow of sweaty fairgoers passing by the cold case containing the famous “Butter Cow”.  As we approached, eyes glued to the slowly rotating platform, my wife looked over her shoulder and said, “it’s not as detailed as last year’s.” That’s when it hit me: we had become Butter Cow aficionados.

I’ve been looking at various Butter Cow scenes annually for more than 40 years. Of course I’ve turned into an opinionated snob when it comes to evaluating a buttery bovine. I’ve never sculpted anything in butter, but I know a good Butter Cow when I see one. 

That realization was like a cold splash of milk in my face. I’m so used to seeing the Butter Cow, it doesn’t seem the least bit strange to me. It’s an almost full-sized cow…really a whole barnyard…made out of nearly 800 lbs. of butter. I tried to imagine explaining the custom to someone from Los Angeles, or even Chicago. Isn’t it a little weird to not be phased by several hundred pounds of butter sculpted into a large farm animal?

Humans have been playing with their food since ancient times. Molds for turning baked goods, pudding and butter into human and animal shapes have been found in Babylonian digs and in ancient Roman sites in Britain. The custom of building food into mini-monuments can be traced back to the Renaissance. For a look at the current state of the custom, check out an episode of “Cake Boss”. Forming and sculpting butter even has religious roots. To this day, Tibetan Buddhist Monks use yak butter and dye to create elaborate and detailed totems for the Tibetan New Year. The first written reports of butter sculpture date to 1536 at the table of Pope Pius V. The Pope’s chef created a feast that featured centerpieces carved out of food. Nine different centerpieces told a story throughout the meal. Butter sculptures used in the creation included an elephant, a figure of Hercules battling a lion and a Moor on a camel (it should be noted, these were NOT life sized!).

Those early sculptures were eaten. As cool as they might have been, they were food and nobody in the 15 or 1600s was secure enough with their food supply to just throw them out. Butter art for art’s sake would not come along until the mid 1800s. And who, I ask you, could possibly be secure enough with their food supply to start using butter purely for sculpting? Yeah, that would be the United States of America.

Caroline Shawk Brooks was a dairy farmer from Helena, Arkansas. She had been making butter for years but her true calling was art. In 1867, Brooks began to sculpt her butter as a sales technique. Eventually, she got so wrapped up in the sculpting, she stopped selling the butter and chose to exhibit it instead. Her masterpiece was the cameo sculpture “Dreaming Iolanthe”. Iolanthe was the heroine of a Henrik Hertz play. Brooks first created the sculpture in 1873. Depending on which Butter Sculpture historian you read (yes, there are several) she either created it once and toured with it, or she re-did it several times as she traveled. Let’s see…very little refrigeration and this thing is BUTTER. I’m leaning towards “re-did it several times.” The piece was such a sensation she was invited to display a recreation of it at the U.S. Centennial Exhibition in 1876.

Although Brooks had ignited the butter sculpting craze, she moved from butter to marble shortly after the Exhibition. Brooks eventually became a trained professional sculptor who studied in Florence and Paris. She did return to her original medium as guest artist at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. She created buttery bas relief sculptures of Columbus and Queen Isabella.

The heyday of butter sculpting was on! Butter sculpting historians generally agree the heyday ran from 1890 to 1930. Refrigeration was widely available and the Dairy Industry was throwing around a lot of dollars for butter promotion. They were trying to kill off synthetic butter. The Dairy Industry marketing gurus believed that butter sculpting would somehow stop the “spread” of Oleo. The Great Depression of the 1930s slowed butter sculpting along with everything else.

Oddly enough, nobody hit on the cow as a subject for a butter sculpture until 1911. John K. Daniels is credited with sculpting the first ever Butter Cow at the Iowa State Fair.

Illinois joined the ranks of “State Fairs with a Butter Cow” in 1922. Over the years, we’ve been sharing sculptors with Iowa. Professional Butter Cow Sculptors are rare. Earl Frank Dutt, an Illinois boy with training from the Chicago Art Institute, was Iowa’s third official butter cow sculptor. He also created several cows for the Illinois State Fair. His successor was Norma “Duffy” Lyon. Duffy was known as “the Butter Cow Lady” and was installed as Sculptor in Residence at the Iowa State Fair in 1960. She also created the Illinois State Fair Cow for more than 30 years.


Duffy retired from the Illinois State Fair in 2002 and from Iowa in 2006 due to health reasons. That’s when Illinois and Iowa parted ways. For the past twelve years Illinois’ Butter Cow has been created by Sharon BuMann who comes from a studio in New York City. BuMann also creates butter sculptures for fairs in Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas. Iowa hired Duffy’s apprentice, Sarah Pratt.

I don’t know how I feel about a sculptor from New York. Butter Cow creation seems like it should be handled by a Midwesterner. BuMann did introduce the 360 degree sculpture in the rotating case and she does a nice job creating scenes that support the theme of the Fair. Next year, though, I want to see a few more veins on that udder.

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Photo/Allen Stare

The 2014 Butter Cow scene at the Illinois State Fair, top photo. Bottom photo – this is a postcard showing the first ever Butter Cow. It was displayed at the Iowa State Fair in 1911.

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