Princess Kay of the Milky Way competition endures at State FairPublished 9:36am Tuesday, August 20, 2013
By John Brewer
St. Paul Pioneer Press
ST. PAUL — What would the Minnesota State Fair be without butterheads?
Machinery Hill — or at least its big implements — is largely gone, time-worn Heritage Square is being razed, and trans fats have pretty much gone the way of the Grandstand thrill shows.
But Princess Kay of the Milky Way remains.
Sixty years after the first Kay was crowned, it’s hard to believe there was a time when the Fair mainstay was untested and dairy marketers relied on the teenage daughters of dairy farmers to don tiaras, hoop skirts and high heels in a plan to make dairy glamorous.
Today’s Princess Kays spend most of their time visiting K-12 classrooms, teaching high schoolers in health classes how to make dairy smoothies or telling kindergartners where milk comes from, said Seena Glessing, the Midwest Dairy Association’s dairy princess consultant and a Princess Kay finalist in 1999.
Even though Minnesota isn’t tops in dairy production or the number of dairy farms (California pumps out the most milk, and Wisconsin has the most dairy farms), the state still ranks high in terms of butter — and dairy princesses.
While the Dakotas are in their 67th year of crowning dairy princesses, and Wisconsin’s Alice in Dairyland, who represents all state agriculture, was the inspiration for Princess Kay, Minnesota has the highest participation levels for a dairy-only princess.
Each year, hundreds of girls compete to be a county dairy queen, with more than 100 vying for the Princess Kay title. Eventually, 12 finalists are named, with Kay starting her yearlong reign the night before the Fair opens.
“It’s been such an icon for 60 years, it’s become such a tradition at the State Fair, and I think Minnesotans have grown to know that,” Glessing said.
As a girl growing up on a dairy farm in Grand Meadow in 1954, Eleanor Maley “was acquainted with milking a cow,” she said.
Still, she was surprised when her 4-H leader signed her up for a fledgling dairy princess contest.
“She kind of forgot to tell me,” she recalled. “A couple days before, I realized I was going to have to compete.”
The contest, created by Lew Conlon, a Wisconsin native and manager of the Minnesota Dairy Industry Committee, was meant to boost the state’s slumping dairy industry and was based on the success of Wisconsin’s “Alice in Dairyland” promotion.
The idea started small, with just a few northwest Minnesota counties involved. The pageant was a success, and the Legislature authorized a statewide princess program in 1953.
That’s how Maley, now Eleanor Thatcher, 76, of Rochester, got involved.
Sixteen at the time, Maley was crowned Mower County dairy princess, won a regional title during June Dairy Month and then moved on to the state competition for something called “Princess Kay of the Milky Way.”
“It wasn’t a familiar title,” she said.
In fact, the title was chosen from 10,000 public entries. The name earned a Mrs. Jacob J. Toman of Keewatin a $100 prize.
Maley and 11 other girls spent five days at the St. Paul Hotel, meeting judges, going through group and individual interviews and attending banquets.
“They had really instilled, if we didn’t make a good Princess Kay program that first year,” it could sink the program going forward, she said.
There’d also be a lot of work — more than attending a few parades, the eventual Princess Kay would need to travel and promote dairy products around the world.
“There was a lot of pressure,” Thatcher said. “We kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Whoa, I don’t know if I want this crown or not.’”
The night before the Fair opened in 1954, in front of hundreds of people in the Grandstand, Maley took the title.
It was a big commotion, she said, with convertibles and uniformed escorts.
“The crowning was as spectacular as he (Conlon) could make it,” she said.
By the end of her reign, Maley had traveled 250,000 miles, including a junket to France that made the news reels.
“They figured that trip generated close to $1 million in free advertising,” she said. “I got mail for a long time after that, some addressed to just ‘Miss Lait, USA.’ And it got to me in Grand Meadow.
“We were actually just trying to bring dairy to the public attention with a touch of glamour,” she said.
Smetana wasn’t a glamorous sell for Betty Jax Cole, Princess Kay 1959.
At the time, “dairy” meant cheese, milk and ice cream, and introducing a thick, tangy topping to home economists and homemakers wasn’t working for the teen from Adams.
“Yogurt wasn’t even around, and the name ‘smetana’ didn’t appeal to people,” she said.
So dairy industry marketers made a midstream switch and started pushing “sour cream.”
The rest is history.
“You use it in stroganoff, coleslaw, in dips for appetizers. It has vast usage,” said Cole, still pitching the product like she did as an 18-year-old. “If you put sour cream in fruit breads, it’s very moist.”
The daughter of dairy farmers, Cole said winning the title as a high schooler meant a lot of firsts: her first experiences speaking in public, traveling outside of Mower County, riding a train, boarding a plane.
During her year as Kay, Cole said, she made nearly 650 appearances in front of convention hall crowds and traveled about 50,000 miles.
“It absolutely was an eye-opener and a grand education. I would say it superseded many years of college,” she said. “It was the real world.”
And it was an experience she carried with her into a nearly four-decade career in real estate, she said.
“It’s a lot of talking and meeting a lot of people. That’s probably what appealed to me,” she said from her office in Plymouth.
In 1981, Cole started the Princess Kay Honor Society, and she puts together an annual newsletter that helps past Kays stay in touch.
“The promotion has changed a lot through the years,” she said. ‘It’s no longer full time — it’s part time. And their appearances veer toward young people.”
Plus, there’s no longer a Jerry the Talking Dairy Train, she said.
“It had an ice cream cone, Swiss cheese and lips that moved,” she said. “A man from Florida would operate it.”
That man was a flirt, by several accounts, making Jerry wink at passing girls and asking them whether they’d be a dairy princess some day.
“He operated in a hidden area, and we would either be down by the train talking to people, or up in the booth asking questions, too,” Cole said.
Jerry, the man from Florida and the hidden booth disappeared when the Midwest Dairy Association abandoned its longtime building on Machinery Hill (now the Fine Arts Center) for its current space in the Empire Commons and launched its most-recognized promotion: the butterhead.
Karen Bracken Geier, the “pint-sized princess with a 10-gallon personality,” was nearing the end of her reign in 1965 when new Princess Kay manager Howie Ryan came up with the butterhead idea as a way to churn up interest in the flagging program.
“Mine was done in the freezer at Land O’Lakes. We finished it at 3 a.m. the first day of the Fair,” she said. Hers was an audition of sorts for University of Minnesota sculptor Don Schule. The prototype took 12 hours over three sessions to finish.
It was good enough to go on display at the Fairgrounds as the state’s first Princess Kay butterhead and get Schule the job sculpting the rest of the 1965 royal court.
“I thought it was awesome, and I’d never seen anything like that before,” Geier said.
For the next 42 years, each and every dairy princess and the 11 finalists were carved into butter in the rotating studio within Empire Commons. In 2008, the walk-in cooler was revamped, making it more energy efficient and about two feet larger to afford better views for onlookers. The temperature inside is a steady 40 degrees throughout the Fair.
Schule held the sculpting post until 1972, when he left the state to take a teaching job in Kansas City, Mo. A young graduate of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design was hired to replace him. The 2013 fair will mark Linda Christensen’s 42nd year turning butter into busts.
While each butterhead sits on display through the Fair, after the 12-day run, when they’re turned over to their models, they’ve met with varied fates: some have been melted down for corn feeds, other served at weddings, and one had its nose nipped off by a princess’s dog.
Geier’s bust was eaten by fairgoers.
“Health standards were different then,” she said. “They put it out with a bunch of saltines and a couple of knives to hunk it off.”
She said folks were kind enough to start with the back of her head instead of her mouth or nose.
Did she try a pat?
“I did try it,” she said. “And you still can’t beat the butter. To this day, there’s still nothing better than butter; just use it in moderation.”
Eventually, the crowd worked its way through the Fair’s first butterhead.
“That was an eerie feeling,” Geier said.