It seems now that she was destined to be in this position. But back in the early ‘90s when she first started helping the woman who would become her mentor, Sarah Pratt could not have imagined she would eventually become the primary custodian of such a rich and important Iowa tradition.
It was in the small town of Toledo, Iowa, that Pratt first started learning from Norma “Duffy” Lyon, the legendary Iowa State Fair Butter Cow sculptor.
Now a historian, student and teacher of the art form herself, Pratt is equally passionate about how the Butter Cow became a staple of the Iowa State Fair. The tradition was started more than 100 years ago at the turn of the 20th century by John K. Daniels, and is now one of the longest running butter carving traditions in the country.
Pratt has been the Lead Sculptor at the Iowa State Fair since 2006, and is only the fifth person to take up the mantle.
Just like her mentor, Pratt frequently travels to other fairs in an effort to keep the art form alive. Her heart, however, remains firmly rooted in the Iowa State Fair.
In addition to the Butter Cow, Pratt creates a yearly companion sculpture, which has included everything from Harry Potter to the Waterloo Boy Tractor honoring John Deere’s centennial to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the game Monopoly.
Once she even crafted a life-size Superman to honor Iowa actor Brandon Routh, who played the Man of Steel on the big screen.
A full-time middle school teacher and a mother of three, Pratt has turned her passion into a family affair.
Her twin 15-year-old daughters are following in her footsteps and have turned into official apprentices. Her father, husband and brother participate as builders and assistants. Even her 7-year-old is getting in the mix and lending a helping hand during projects.
Considering Pratt uses almost 1,400 pounds of recycled butter between the cow and the companion sculptures, it’s easy to see why she values the family support.
Before each unveiling, Pratt’s respect and nerves create the focus that allows her to pay meticulous attention to even the smallest little details. The Jersey Cow is one of her favorites, and she can passionately describe the intricate details of its hooves and the veins of its knees.
Leading up to the Fair, she navigates a full week of carving for eight to 10 hours each day in a 40-degree cooler.
A humble artist through and through, Pratt has not only mastered the art of butter sculpting but also has a deep understanding of the history of the tradition, what it means to Iowa and how it pays homage to the state’s farming families.
“That’s also what Norma did for me,” Pratt says. “She built me and my confidence to do this.”
When you stop by for a visit to the Butter Cow this year, take look into its eyes because there is a soul behind them— the rich history of the past, the tradition that the Butter Cow represents and the continued passion of its sculptor.
Just like her beloved mentor, Pratt is not only proudly carrying the torch. She’s creating a legacy of her own.