Get a first look at the Iowa State Fair butter cow and the butter Giant Slide

Isaac Hamlet
Des Moines Register

With an estimated 1,390 pounds of butter in use, Sarah Pratt estimates she and her helpers are almost done with the sculptures already on display to Iowa State Fair attendees.

“We always feel like we’re not going to have enough, but then we do,” said Pratt, the lead sculptor at the Iowa State Fair, standing in a cooler next to dozens of buckets once rich with butter, now stacked and empty.

After a year of absence following the cancellation of the 2020 State Fair due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event is back for 2021, even in the face of once again rising concerns around the virus.

The butter cow stands, as ever, behind glass in a cooler at the State Fair's John Deere Agriculture Building. This year, in addition to another unique butter sculpture, the cow is being led by G. Joe Lyon.

For those who pass by and don't know anything about the late Joe Lyon, information and images are provided on a sign next to the display as well as a QR code, which guests can use to get more information about the man depicted.

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Sarah Pratt's two daughters work on the butter Giant Slide butter sculpture on the first morning of the 2021 Iowa State Fair. The sculpture stands to the left of the Butter Cow sculpture.

On top of being a big name in dairy and cattle breeding, Joe was husband to Pratt's butter-sculpting predecessor, the late Norma "Duffy" Lyon. Joe died in January this year, proceeded in death by Duffy 10 years prior in 2011.

Just past Joe and the butter cow early Thursday morning, attendees were able to spot Pratt's two daughters hard at work completing the Giant Slide sculpture. This interpretation of a State Fair mainstay celebrates the installment's 50th year in operation.

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“These two gals going down the slide, my nieces posed for them," said Pratt, gesturing to the butter-made people on the slide.

Pratt noted that her nieces had very specific conditions in exchange for posing for the piece. 

“They said they work for eggs and ice cream," she added with a laugh, alluding to famed confections available in the Agriculture Building. 

One of the challenges, Pratt said, in creating a giant slide that couldn't actually be giant was conveying a sense of scale. Thus the sculpture takes up nearly as much room as possible while still giving its sculptors rooms to complete it.

Furthermore, rather than being a perfect re-creation of the slide — aspects like the stairs and handlebars aren't included — Pratt's aim was to capture a feeling, one familiar to her and thousands of others.

“One of the memories of being a parent and having your kids go down the slide is standing down and trying to get that picture," she said. “I wanted (fairgoers) to feel like the slide was coming at them.”

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The Iowa State Fair runs through Aug. 22 with the butter sculptures expected to be completed sometime Saturday morning.

Those who see the butter sculptures in advance of their weekend completion may notice an only partially formed figure at the base of the slide. This will eventually become a young fairgoer cheering after riding down the Giant Slide, with Pratt's 9-year-old son planning to model for the figure on Saturday. 

Right now, she's planning to sculpt him victoriously with his hands clasped over his head, a reference to the celebratory gesture Pratt's husband makes.

“It’s a family inside joke that my husband is super competitive when it comes to Monopoly," said Pratt. "(That’s) the way you know Monopoly is done."

Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at the Des Moines Register. Reach him at ihamlet@gannett.com or (319)-600-2124, follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet.