The Iowa State Fair butter cow will be joined by 'Music Man' and Ye Old Mill sculptures in 2022

Susan Stapleton
Des Moines Register

Since 2006, Sarah Pratt of West Des Moines has wielded her sculpting tools and used butter to shape the butter cow at the Iowa State Fair. This year, the ode to the butter cow gets a companion piece to showcase with it — a tribute to “The Music Man,” the Broadway musical written by Mason City native Meredith Willson in 1957.

The musical based on the fictional town of River City, Iowa, celebrates its 60th year in film with a Broadway reboot that stars Hugh Jackman, who plays traveling salesman Harold Hill trying to sell a town of Midwestern nice Iowans musical instruments and uniforms to start a band. 

The butter cow sculpture on display at the Ag Building on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, during the opening day of the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines.

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The revamped Broadway version also stars Drew Minard, an Iowa native born in Clive. The only Iowan in the cast stars as one of the townspeople in his Broadway debut. Pratt plans to meet Minard in New York City next week.

In 1962, Robert Preston, who also starred in the original Broadway show, brought Hill to the big screen with Shirley Jones as Marian, Buddy Hackett as Marcellus, Hermione Gingold as Mrs. Shinn and Ron Howard as Winthrop.

On Wednesday, just as the butter cow companion piece is announced, riders on RAGBRAI overnight in Mason City. 

At the Iowa State Fair, officials promise at least one of the 76 trombones from that centerpiece song to make an appearance.

The popular Ye Old Mill float ride was built in 1921, but a wind storm leveled the building in 1996. The structure was completely rebuilt that year in time for the State Fair.

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The 600-pound butter cow gets another companion piece, a relief that celebrates the 100th anniversary of Ye Old Mill.

The 1,500-foot canal ride was first constructed in 1921. Couples like to float on the boats and many a couple shared a first kiss or proposed on the ride.

In 1996, a strong wind blew down the mill, but a $100,000 gift from Boatmen’s Bank of Iowa helped the ride return for the State Fair that year.

The butter cow became a regular fixture at the State Fair in 1911. The fair added a companion sculpture in 1996 that featured Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Through the years, Harry Potter, Garth Brooks, the 25th anniversary of “Field of Dreams,” Superman and gymnast Shawn Johnson had their own sculptures. 

During the State Fair from Aug. 11-21, fairgoers can see the butter cow and her companion pieces at the John Deere Agriculture Building, open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Related: 

15 facts about the Iowa State Fair's butter cow

The butter cow has been part of the Iowa State Fair since 1911, when J.K. Daniels sculpted the fair's butter bovine, but here are a few things even the biggest butter cow fan might not know.

  • The butter cow consists of 600 pounds of low moisture, pure cream Iowa butter. The butter can be recycled and reused for up to 10 years, according to sculptor Sarah Pratt.
  • The butter cow is not solid butter. Instead, butter is packed onto a wood, metal, wire and steel mesh frame.
  • There is enough butter in the butter cow for 19,200 slices of toast, which would take an average person two lifetimes to eat.
  • On three occasions, the butter cow actually "produced" milk. (A trick completed using a recirculation pump.)
  • Butter sculpting was suspended nationally during World War II when there was a butter shortage.
  • Older butter is better, Pratt said: "New butter is crumbly. Older butter is more workable, like clay."
  • While sculpting, butter is kept outside the cooler so it's soft and pliable when needed. Once in the cooler, the butter sets in about 20 minutes.
  • A properly refrigerated butter sculpture can stay in place for four to six weeks.
  • In the past, the fair used unsalted butter in its sculpture as salt was thought to attract moisture and cause the sculpture to sweat or crack. Today, the fair uses salted butter, which acts as a preservative.
  • Previous sculptor Norma "Duffy" Lyon sculpted Jersey Jewel, a bronze statue that sits in front of the Iowa State University Dairy Farm. The sculpture was originally made of clay and then cast in bronze.
  • The cow's ears are not supported by the wire frame and are often at risk of falling off if not sculpted well.
  • In 2009, Pratt incorporated a television encased in butter in her tribute to the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon. The television played a continuous loop of moon landing highlights.
  • In 2000, a plaque was placed in front of the agriculture building to commemorate Duffy's 40 years of sculpting.
  • In 1997, the butter cow was judged based on 4-H standards and received an honorary blue ribbon.
  • Duffy sculpted the cow's legs and tail last. Pratt sculpts the legs, hooves and ears last.

— Facts provided by the Iowa State Fair

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Susan Stapleton is the entertainment editor at The Des Moines Register. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter or drop her a line at sstapleton@gannett.com.