Spreading cheer with butter art

A tradition at the Illinois State Fair

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, butter art became a popular attraction at state and national fairs. At the Illinois State Fair, butter sculpting has a rich history since J. E. Wallace sculpted the first butter cow there in 1922. Except for three years, 1941 and 1942, because of butter shortage during World War II, and the 2020 pandemic, the butter cow has continued to be a fixture at the fair. Like cream rising to the top, the sculpted butter cows continue to be a top draw at the Illinois State Fair.

Sarah Pratt, a butter sculptor there going on eight years, has a background in butter sculpting going back more than 30 years when she began assisting Norma “Duffy” Lyon at the Iowa State Fair in 1991. Lyon had been a butter sculptor at that fair since 1960. Ten years later, she also became a butter sculptor at Illinois’ and Kansas’ state fairs.

Pratt took over the helm at the Iowa State Fair in 2006 after Lyon retired and handed Pratt her tools. “Using the same tools that she used is so important to me,” Pratt says. “She was such a strong influence in building my confidence and teaching me about public speaking and sculpting.” Just like her predecessor, Pratt branched out 10 years later to become a butter sculptor at Illinois’ and Kansas’ state fairs. “The timing was just right,” she says.

A dairy cow is always the centerpiece. Pratt ties it in with each fair’s theme and adds a humorous aspect to the scene because visitors at the fair are typically in a playful mood. Kendra Anderson, farmer relations manager for Illinois Midwest Dairy, says, “It is exciting every year to unveil Sarah’s interpretation of the state fair theme.”

The theme for 2016, Pratt’s first year, was “Producing Our Future,” which was written in butter on the floor. She completed a classic dairy cow for that exhibit.

With the 2017 theme “Generations of Fun,” she sculpted a cow and calf with their tongues stuck out at each other. She says, “Cows do funny things with their tongues.”

The 2018 theme celebrated Illinois’ bicentennial. Pratt sculpted a Grand Champion Dairy Cow. However, when spelling bicentennial, she put the double n in the wrong place but didn’t realize it.

“When I sculpt words on a sign, I start in the middle and work left and right,” she explains. “I do that so it’s centered when I’m finished.” After she returned home to West Des Moines, Iowa, the mistake was discovered. Since the floor was buttered that year, she advised them to take off their shoes and walk softly across the buttered floor and move the n to the correct place while repositioning other letters to make room for it. Although she tries to double-check details like that, she says mistakes happen.

In 2019 the theme was “Building Our Future.” “The Dairy Building roof was being replaced along with other renovations at the fairgrounds. Things were literally falling all around us.” She decided to put a hard hat on the cow, made of butter of course. Also in butter, she formed the letters of the sign with the addition of a hammer, cautionary cones, a screwdriver and nails, all in reference to the building theme.

“Embracing Tradition” in 2021 celebrated the 100th year since the first butter cow was sculpted at the fair.

Last year’s theme was “Grow with Us.” In addition to the cow, she sculpted a farmer planting sunflowers. “The cow has snitched a sunflower, which is sticking out of her mouth,” Pratt says. “Large livestock can be mischievous and playful. We wanted to play into that aspect and have those two figures interacting that way.”

Pratt says some people think the figures are composed completely of butter. However, the butter is layered over an armature, which has an adjustable headpiece and flexible wires attached to a wood base. The armature adds stability and strength to the structure.

The cow is sculpted on a platform that rotates. Pratt turns off the rotation while sculpting but turns it back on periodically to view the figures from all angles.

Sarah Pratt with a completed butter cow.

In Illinois and Kansas, her right-hand man is her husband, Andy. “He shapes the armature for the figures, softens butter and does some sculpting, such as cats and mice, which are commonly found in milking barns,” she says.

There’s a special touch that Pratt only adds to sculptures at the Illinois State Fair. “I hide 13 sculpted hearts that represent the 13 essential nutrients in dairy products.” For example, a heart may be found on the hip of the cow, on the farmer’s shirt pocket, on the leaves of flowers, or a nostril or udder of the cow. She says kids and adults have fun trying to find all the hearts as they view the sculpture that rotates inside the glassed-in case. “The longer they linger, they will read about the nutrition in dairy products and experience the sculpture in a deeper way.”

Altogether, she and her husband log about 90 hours over five days working in a 42-degree Fahrenheit refrigerated room to complete the figures. The sculpture is unveiled in a ceremony the day before the fair begins.

After the fair concludes, a crew dismantles the sculptures and places the butter in cold storage for use the following year.

Anderson says, “Midwest Dairy is proud to partner with the Illinois State Fair every year to continue this unique promotion of the Illinois Dairy Industry.”

Pratt is humbled to perpetuate the butter art tradition at the Illinois State Fair.

Catch a sight of this year’s butter cow at the state fair in Springfield Aug. 10-20. Go to statefair.illinois.gov for more information.

Photos courtesy of Sarah Pratt