March 26, 2022 at 8:46 p.m.

A story worth telling

“Princess Kay and Me” is a book written by long-time butter sculptor Linda Christensen. Several former Princess Kays and finalists are featured in the book.  PHOTO SUBMITTED
“Princess Kay and Me” is a book written by long-time butter sculptor Linda Christensen. Several former Princess Kays and finalists are featured in the book. PHOTO SUBMITTED

By Jennifer Coyne- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

ST. PAUL, Minn. – Over the course of 50 years, Linda Christensen has carved the likeness of 550 young dairy women from 41,500 pounds of butter in her role as the famed butter sculptor at the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul.
As Christensen completed each butterhead, she heard stories of every kind about these women in the dairy industry all while creating her own story from the butter booth.
“I realized I had a niche as the butterheads grew in popularity and tradition, and I would hear of the stories that happened to those butterheads once they left the booth,” Christensen. “The art isn’t necessarily the butter, it is the stories from those women.”
Now retired from the cooler, Christensen published “Princess Kay and Me,” a book reflecting on her time at the Minnesota State Fair, the dairy princesses she met over the years and the industry she came to know.
The chapter book, dedicated to Christensen’s daughters, walks readers through her journey to becoming the butter sculptor of the Princess Kay program. Christensen also highlights several women and families who have rich histories in the program, some who are still farming today and others whose cows have long left the barn.
“I wanted to interweave my journey to becoming the butter sculptor with the balance of the stories I heard in the butter booth,” Christensen said. “And, the whole history of butter making. I couldn’t leave any out. It’s been a wild dream of mine.”
It also became a platform for Christensen to connect her urban followers to rural living.
“I went into this butter sculpting thing with the same attitude as a lot of people. You build a barn, fill it with cows, feed them hay and out comes milk,” Christensen said. “But what I learned, the stories of what it takes to be a dairy farmer, how involved the dairy community is with their local communities and how much support these princesses have, and the pride they have for their hometown. That’s dairy farming.”
The book started coming to fruition around 2017.
Throughout the years, Christensen would tell her daughters of her experience at the state fair, and they encouraged her to document that time in a way others could read about.
In 2014, Christensen’s daughter, Jenny Rich, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After 17 months of battling the disease, Jenny’s dying wish was for her mother to write a book about butter sculpting and take care of her small dog, Ursula.
An excerpt from the book reads, “Ursula is resting her head on my foot even now as I sit here typing. The ability to fulfill the promises I made to my daughter was her gift to me – something I can do in her memory.”
 To begin the novel, Christensen reached out to Midwest Dairy for assistance in connecting with past Princess Kays of the Milky Way and finalists.
Christensen sent letters to some, asking if they had a story to tell or knew someone who did. She then sorted through the responses to create a list of individuals she felt best represented all the stories heard in the butter booth. She wanted to highlight those of the early 1970s and 1980s when women pursued careers off the farm to more current trends of women being prominently involved on their dairies and in the industry.
“They were all quite thrilled to tell their stories,” Christensen said. “I couldn’t believe some of the stories I was hearing. I realized what remarkable women they are.”
Christensen then spent nearly two years interviewing the women. Those featured in the book include the Haler, Miron and Vander Kooi sisters, the Hupf family and many more.
But then another family heartbreak came about when Christensen’s mother passed away at 102 years old. The book was put on hold.
“I dropped it, but I had friends and relatives who started prodding me to finish the book,” Christensen said. “I decided to get busy and finish it. Putting it together and making a narrative took quite a while, believe me.”
She reconnected with a former sculpture student who put her in touch with a publisher.
Of the stories the book depicts, not one stands out to Christensen.
“Instead, I have a favorite thing,” she said. “It’s how much I have interacted with different people from all over the state and found out how much these butterheads mean to the families, the friends, the communities.”
 Christensen’s fame came from humble beginnings as an artist. She was married with children when she decided to pursue an education in art.  
“It just kept calling my name and I had to do it,” Christensen said. “I didn’t have any plans with what I was going to do. All I had was this romanticized idea of artists.”
Christensen followed her interests and found a desire to create figurative art.
“It was the crazy, wild ‘70s, people were standing on step ladders and pouring paint and saying figurative art didn’t have a place,” Christensen said. “I was one of the few students going back to figurative art, not really knowing what I was going to do with it. I never thought I’d wind up being a butter sculptor.”
In addition to butter sculpting, the book also touches on Christensen’s other endeavors of teaching, creating greeting cards and writing poetry.
The artist has now added author to her list of accomplishments and the feedback has been welcoming, said Christensen. Many of her readers are former high school classmates, acquaintances and those in her poetry clubs.
“A lot of people my age remember farming, and I think there’s a little bit of grief for the loss of family farms in our country,” Christensen said. “But, Princess Kay is evidence that 97% of dairy farms are still family owned, and that part of the story is so appealing to people who didn’t realize that element is alive and well.”
From the butter booth to the book, Christensen is appreciative of her journey in Minnesota’s dairy industry.
“If you just surrender to where you love something, it takes you places you never thought of,” Christensen said. “I can’t say enough of how much gratitude I owe the dairy association for making my life an unbelievable journey. I don’t know where my life would be without these butter sculptures.”


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