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Front Row Seat: 20 years later, a Minnesota State Fair butterhead looks back

In 2002, Shannon Watrin became the first Princess Kay of the Milky Way finalist from Brown County. Today, she lives in Sandstone — and she's still advocating for Minnesota's dairy farmers.

A woman wearing an "UNDENIABLY DAIRY" t-shirt stands, smiling, in front of a cow barn.
Shannon Watrin stood near some camera-shy cows on her family's farm in Sandstone, Minn., on Monday.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune
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SANDSTONE, Minn. — The No. 1 song in the country was "Dilemma," by Nelly featuring Kelly Rowland. The Vin Diesel action flick "xXx" was tops at the box office. President George W. Bush was promising that "we will look at all options" for replacing Saddam Hussein as leader of Iraq, and Shannon Sellner was onstage at the Minnesota State Fair, cheering as Sarah Olson was named Princess Kay of the Milky Way.

"We kind of all knew she was the one that was going to get it," said Shannon Sellner Watrin, a Princess Kay finalist in 2002. "She was very well qualified for it, and I enjoyed the experience more than anything. As a finalist, you still get to be at the State Fair. ... I got to run around with Princess Kay and do all the things she did for three days rather than 12 days."

A young woman, at left, smiles at the camera as a block of butter begins to take shape as a bust, at right.
Shannon Watrin at the Minnesota State Fair's Dairy Building in 2002, as her butterhead began to take shape.
Contributed / Shannon Watrin

Twenty years later, Watrin is still in the dairy business. The smell of manure wafted on the wind as she stood near the cow barn at her family farm in Sandstone on Monday afternoon. She works for Midwest Dairy as well as the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, and she also spent time working as dairy princess coordinator in Brown County — which she represented in 2002 as the county's first-ever Princess Kay finalist.

"I enjoyed growing up on the farm," Watrin said about her Sleepy Eye childhood. "I enjoyed the animals, I enjoyed the crops. I was kind of a science nerd." She became a Minnesota Dairy Ambassador in ninth grade, going on to major in dairy science at South Dakota State University and becoming a butterhead at age 20.

Yes, that's how the Princess Kay finalists describe themselves: butterheads. "It was an experience," said Watrin, "and I got to share that experience with butterheads that came after me."

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For the uninitiated, the nickname refers to the storied practice of carving Princess Kay finalists' busts in butter. The carving happens in a refrigerated display booth, where the busts remain on view for the duration of the fair. While there are other states that also have dairy princess programs, Minnesota's butterhead tradition — dating to 1965 — has made our program the most famous in America.

"Wisconsin has Alice in Dairyland, and she represents cherries and potatoes and apples and all that other stuff, too," Watrin noted. "Princess Kay, she's exclusively to dairy."

Finalists get to take their butterheads home with them after the fair — and not just the head, said Watrin, but the shavings. "I bagged them up in Ziploc bags and gave them as thank-you cards to anybody that helped support (me) along the way," she said.

Watrin launched something of a butterhead dynasty. Her sister became a Princess Kay finalist, and "my stepdaughters are interested in doing it as well," she said. "We're going to go to the State Fair next week, on Monday, and we're going to go see the butterheads."

Three young women stand in a photo booth, the woman at center holding an electric guitar. All three wear boas, tiaras, and sashes.
Shannon Watrin, left, at the Minnesota State Fair in 2002. At center is Sarah Olson, that year's Princess Kay of the Milky Way; at right is another finalist, Karin Nordling.
Contributed / Shannon Watrin

In one photo from 2002, Watrin poses in the Got Milk Mustache Photo Booth with two other finalists, including a guitar-wielding Olson. All three wear their sashes and tiaras along with feather boas. (This was the Jesse Ventura era, after all.)

"I was aware of it, but I never actually envisioned that I could do it," said Watrin about becoming a butterhead. She entered the contest in May 2002, she said, "thinking, 'If I get it, I get it. If I don't, I'm just going to get an internship for the summer.'"

What happened to Watrin's own butterhead? "We kept it for a while," she said. "My grandmother stored it in her freezer and I slowly started chipping away at the bottom of it, and finally got to the place where I was like, I need to be done with it. So we chopped it up and I donated it to our church, and they made caramel rolls and cookies out of it."

Some finalists keep their likenesses around for longer — much longer. "They bring it out for their weddings," said Watrin. "Some of them keep the face. Like, they've taken the back off and just kept the face."

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Watrin describes the experience of being a butterhead as "surreal," but it was also of a piece with her life's work: celebrating Minnesota's dairy industry. "Farmers are super humble people," she said. "They don't like bragging about what they do."

The dairy princess program attracts a lot of press. In fact, a mock media interview is part of the selection process. Watrin advises her successors to "be your authentic self. People can very easily see through talking points ... every one of these girls has a different story."

Four young women wearing tiaras and sashes reading BROWN CO. DAIRY PRINCESS. Wearing formal gowns in various shades, the three women at right hold bouquets of flowers. All four smile widely.
In 2003 Shannon Watrin, at left, passed the torch to three successor Brown County Dairy Princesses: Julia Strand, Robyn Schnobrich and Sarah Haala.
Contributed / Shannon Watrin

The finalists are, indeed, all young women. "The only requirement is that you're 18 to 24 years old, and you have some connection to a dairy farm and you're not married, not engaged, and don't have any children," said Watrin. She noted that other dairy advocacy activities are open to all genders, but doesn't see the Princess Kay parameters changing any time soon.

"In Minnesota, we do like our traditions," said Watrin. "I don't know if we can envision a Minnesota State Fair without butterheads."

Short cuts

We're not running a Best Bets feature this week due to our bumper crop of Minnesota State Fair preview coverage, but a few events to keep in mind if you're staying in the Twin Ports are the Dragon Boat Festival in Superior and the Tribute Fest at Bayfront Festival Park. (On Thursday, organizers announced that Saturday's scheduled Kurtfest — with free performances by two dozen artists, billed as "one of the biggest full-day music events in Eveleth history" — has been canceled.) I'm also absolutely not supposed to tell you (wink, wink) about a free, "top secret," Charlie Parr show at Earth Rider on Thursday at 7 p.m.

A violinist, pianist, cellist, and violist complete a piece with a flourish: bows held high, the pianist's hands aloft. They are seen from above on a stage with blonde wood flooring.
Violinist Yun-Ting Lee, pianist Sayaka Tanikawa, cellist Dane Johansen, and violist Jonathan Vinocour performed at the University of Minnesota Duluth's Weber Music Hall on Thursday, Aug. 18, as part of the Duluth Chamber Music Festival.
Contributed / Derek Montgomery

Last Thursday, I went to the University of Minnesota Duluth's egglike Weber Music Hall for the Duluth Chamber Music Festival's debut mainstage concert. It was a short festival. In addition to the UMD concert, there was a house show and a performance at Essentia Health. The sterling UMD show attracted a good crowd, who bestowed an immediate standing ovation at the conclusion of Brahms' epic Piano Quartet in G Minor. The program also included "Moonbeams," a piquant piece by jazz composer Adam Birnbaum, inspired by Debussy's "Clair de Lune" (also on the program) and selected to "reflect magical evenings in Duluth when the sky is clear and the moon dances gently on Lake Superior." Organizers plan for the event to return, and with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra set to move into a high-visibility new space at the Depot, it's an exciting time for classical music in the Zenith City.

A young Black person in blonde braided hair looks at a person out of focus to the right, smiling with blue light illuminating their face from behind.
Amandla Stenberg in "Bodies Bodies Bodies."
Contributed / A24

My wife and I give two thumbs up to the horror comedy "Bodies Bodies Bodies," now playing at theaters including the Marcus Duluth Cinema. (A bartender at the theater's Movie Tavern told us she liked it, too, so make that three thumbs up.) It was our first visit to the DECC's movie theater, and we were bemused by the very committed B.Y.O.B. culture: Bring Your Own Blanket. We watched moviegoers of all ages roll in toting blankets, and the feature even opened with a promo video starring chain CEO Greg Marcus curling up under his own blanket. At a time when the movie industry is concerned about people's reluctance to get out from under the blankets on their couches, it was refreshing to see that in Duluth, people still get out to the cinema — they just bring their blankets with them.

In most of Duluth, the city code doesn't require businesses to provide bike parking. Many do, but it's inconsistent in both quantity and quality.

This story was updated at 7:05 a.m. Aug. 26 to note the cancellation of Kurtfest. It was originally posted at 8:01 a.m. Aug. 25.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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