From butter to bronze

Effort underway to repair “Butter Cow Lady” sculpture in Toledo

Toledo’s iconic Cow/Calf Sculpture that was created by famed “Butter Cow Lady” Norma “Duffy” Lyon and donated to the city of Toledo in 1991. The fiberglass sculpture was damaged in the August derecho and fundraising efforts are underway to replace the sculpture with a solid bronze replica. -- Photo by Darvin Graham/News Chronicle

Twenty nine years after the Arts Council of the Tama-Toledo Area unveiled Norma “Duffy” Lyon’s cow/calf sculpture near Toledo’s main thoroughfare, a movement is underway to preserve the work of art for decades to come.

Through the latter half of the 20th century, Lyon became widely known as Iowa’s preeminent butter sculptor. The Iowa State Fair Butter Cow has remained a trademark attraction of the fair and has greeted millions of visitors from around the world over the decades.

Lyon’s tenure with the State Fair Butter Cow lasted from 1960 until 2006 when she retired, handing the reins to long-time apprentice and Toledo native Sarah Pratt. Pratt began learning from Lyon as a teenager in 1991, the same year Lyon’s cow/calf sculpture was unveiled and dedicated to the city of Toledo.

“I was about 14 when it was dedicated,” Pratt said. “It was a very strong landmark as I was beginning to drive and you’re more aware of your surroundings than when you’re a passenger in a car. That four-way stop was something I passed through every day on the way to school and as I got older and I went to UNI, it was something I drove past every time I came home.”

On Aug. 10, 2020, the derecho storm that swept through Tama County critically damaged a portion of the iconic sculpture. A branch from the nearby oak tree came down and broke off the head of the calf. The branch narrowly missed the cow sculpture although the cow did take some minor damage to its back leg.

Sarah Pratt (right) and Norma “Duffy” Lyon (right, in back) greet visitors at their “Butter Cow” booth at the 2008 RAGBRAI event in Toledo. -- News Chronicle File Photo

The cow/calf sculpture is considered one of, if not the, best works that Lyon ever completed and is one of only two permanent sculptures from the “Butter Cow Lady” in existence.

“It’s about community,” said Eric Lyon, son of the late Norma Lyon. “The cow sort of represents the town and agriculture. You know, you’ve managed to keep Pioneer here, the meat packing house is back open, we have the sale barn and John Deere still maintains a presence here. Agriculture is what we do here in Toledo, you know, a big part of it.”

After the storm the Lyon family was able to recover the broken pieces of the sculpture which is still standing at the Hwy 63 and 30 intersection in Toledo.

Although Pratt has not branched out into bronze sculpting, she has gone through an experience where one of her butter cow pieces was temporarily damaged. In 2013 vandals gained access to the Agriculture Building where the Butter Cow is created and housed and doused the sculpture in red paint.

“I remember feeling sad and disappointed,” Pratt said. “I also distinctly remember it was a time when a group of people just banded around me and helped me. People high up with the State Fair that, in my opinion, had much more to handle than to repair this butter sculpture. But I just felt a sense of warmth and of shared grief a little bit. Also there was a camaraderie around fixing it and getting it back to the way it needed to be, even before the building opened that day.”

COW/CALF STATUE DEDICATED | A crowd gathers around the cow/calf sculpture under the oak tree north of the intersection of U.S. Hwy. 30 and 63 in Toledo. The sculpture was unveiled on a Saturday morning. Several hundred people were on had to mark the special occasion. Fundraising for the statue and the program were handled by the Arts Council of Tama-Toledo area. -- Originally published in the Aug. 27 edition of the Toledo Chronicle in 1991.

“I do feel like there is a little bit of that in this moment. All of Norma’s children have banded together to create this fundraiser and work with Iowa State and the city of Toledo. This means something to our community. It’s a sense of, ‘Hey, let’s all work together’. Even though this is a disappointment with how this storm has interrupted our life, it also gives us an opportunity to come together as a community to decide what is important and to fix it.”

The sculpture stands thanks to a partnership between the city of Toledo who own the sculpture after it was donated by Lyon in 1991 and Corteva (formerly Pioneer) who own the land where it resides.

Marjorie Howard Moore, the granddaughter of the former landowners who sold the property to Pioneer, wrote this in a letter to the Toledo Chronicle following the cow/calf sculpture dedication in 1991: “I read with great interest the article in the Times Republican about Duffy Lyon’s cow sculpture under the old oak tree. It also brought a tear to my eye remembering the times my children Perry H. Moore, Marshalltown and Susan Leavy Moore, Sioux City played and had picnics under that very oak tree.”

“You see, my dear grandparents George H. and Nellie Mason Ebersole bought that land about 56 years ago from John Reinig and they are the owners that requested this great landmark be saved.”

“Upon their death, my mother Thelma Ebersole Howard Atkinson and my husband Perry sold this property to Pioneer, again repeating my grandparents request.”

Nelle Bennett of the Arts Council of Tama-Toledo Area told the story about the cow/calf sculpture during the unveiling ceremonies on Saturday morning, Aug. 24, 1991. The sculpture is in recognition of Norma “Duffy” Lyon who has sculpted the butter cow and other objects at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines for over 25 years. The Arts Council also hosted a special reception at Pioneer prior to the unveiling. -- Originally published in the Aug. 27 edition of the Toledo Chronicle in 1991.

“What a tribute to Duffy and to the preservation of Tama County history. My family, my mother and I are proud to have been a part of this. My only regret is that my children and my six grandchildren weren’t there to witness the unveiling of the cow/calf sculpture.”

The city of Toledo, Mayor Brian Sokol and the Tama-Toledo Chamber of Commerce have come together with the Lyon family in recent weeks to make an effort to replace the damaged sculpture with a solid bronze replica.

The original sculpture was hand-made out of clay by Lyon in a similar fashion to the famous butter cow sculptures. The clay piece was then cast in bonded bronze and installed on the hill in Toledo. Bonded bronze sculptures are made out of fiberglass material and covered in a bronze colored epoxy.

The replacement that is being sought by Iowa State and by the city of Toledo will be of a more durable material than the original and is expected to be museum-grade, solid bronze that will withstand a much longer period in the elements.

For the past two years Iowa State University, Lyon’s alma mater, has been in the process of fundraising for a mold of the cow/calf sculpture to be created so that a solid bronze replica could be made and installed near the ISU Veterinary Diagnostic Lab on campus.

The cow/calf sculpture in Toledo earlier this year following the damage from the derecho storm. -- Photo by Darvin Graham

Although the incident unfortunate, the timing of Toledo needing to replace the sculpture aligns nicely with the project already underway at Iowa State.

The overall cost of the replacement process will surpass $100,000 but thankfully the mold will be able to be used twice which will allow for some cost savings. The projected cost to the city of Toledo to replace their sculpture looks to be around $60,000.

At Toledo’s regular city council meeting on Nov. 9 Eric Lyon and Mayor Sokol presented the project to the city council and requested a $20,000 commitment toward the replacement from the city’s hotel/motel tax fund. The request was approved by a unanimous vote from the council and will be appropriated over a two year period.

“The cow-calf sculpture is claimed to be the best work of Duffy Lyon,” Sokol said. “It’s a true representation of our community. Thousands of fair attendees visit the butter cow annually. We need to show our pride and invest in a solid replica that will last for generations, showcasing the true home of the butter cow.”

Sokol also reported the city has the sculpture insured and that a repair estimate is still being sought to determine if an insurance reimbursement would be available.

It’s anticipated that the sculpture will be removed from its station along Highway 63 this year before winter weather fully sets in to help protect the interior portions now exposed to the weather.

To date, the Toledo sculpture replacement fund has just over $28,000.

With the input from the city and some initial private donations, the fund is already close to halfway toward their goal. Sokol said the group will apply for future grants to help with the project but are also asking for private donations from community members interested in helping to preserve the work of one of Toledo’s most well known individuals.

Sokol said donations for the project can be sent directly to the city by calling 641-484-2160 or by contacting the Tama-Toledo Chamber of Commerce.

Additionally, one of Duffy Lyon’s children Valerie Lyon has authored and published a book titled “The Butter Cow Lady’s Christmas”. It features stories, pictures and recipes that connect Duffy Lyon’s story with the holiday season.

Proceeds of the book will go toward the cow/calf sculpture replacement fund. You can find it online at https://www.amazon.com/dp/064896020X?fbclid=IwAR0XiNtxtmql3I7NYXE2INAtj9PGdPIZP8QGpDYlMXQCwBfd9kEEemSss8k

In 1991 shortly after the unveiling and dedication of the cow/calf sculpture, Duffy Lyon wrote the following letter that was published in the Toledo Chronicle.

“A simple “Thank You” is hardly enough to say to my community, but I wish for you to know how appreciative I am to the response and attendance at the dedication of the cow/calf sculpture. I came to this community 40 years ago and I’m proud to be a part of this place in Tama County and Iowa. This is one of the greatest places on earth, and many dreams have come true here. It is a great place to raise and educate my family.”

Gratefully yours,

Norma “Duffy” Lyon

Route 2, Toledo