The inspiration for the promotion came from Wisconsin's Alice in Dairyland program, and in 1953 Minnesota's Legislature called for development of a similar dairy princess program, swayed by a dairy industry committee's contention that "such an individual might add glamour to many dairy meetings throughout the state."
According to the event's sponsor, the Midwest Dairy Association, more than 1,700 young women from Minnesota dairy farms competed to become one of 15 regional princesses that first year. A contest to come up with a snappy title drew more than 10,000 entries. The winner: Princess Kay of the Milky Way. Using a merry-go-round from a previous State Fair, a Talking Dairy Train was built, complete with a throne for the dairy princess.
Eleanor Maley, from Grand Meadow, was crowned in 1954 and the promotion proved an immediate success. She even flew to Paris to present French Premier Pierre Mendès-France with a quart of milk from each of the (then) 48 states as a thank-you from the National Milk Producers Federation for his campaign to get his citizens to drink milk as an alternative to alcohol.
The second Princess Kay, Ruth Marie Peterson of Lansing, also was crowned the first American Dairy Princess. That led to trips to Bogota, Colombia, for a dairy expo, then to Tokyo for the Japan International Trade Fair, where everyone talked about "Miss Milk." She ended her year by presenting a gift of butter to President Dwight Eisenhower.
Her successor, Barbara Bossus, presented a Holstein calf to Eisenhower, who reportedly delayed a meeting with military advisers to spend more time with her.
Since then, Princess Kays have stayed closer to home. The 1964 pick, Karen Bracken of Verdi, led a cow down Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis wearing a dress made of butter cartons. (It's now at the Minnesota Historical Society.) She also was the first to have her likeness sculpted in butter as a practice for the 1965 State Fair, when butterheads began their iconic run that continues to this day.