After more well-known and celebrated sites such as Wall Drug, South of the Border, and the Mystery Spot, the four giant twine balls claiming to be the “world’s largest” are arguably among the very best roadside attractions North America has to offer.
The balls themselves are colossal monuments, each representing a massive cumulative investment of time, attention, and resources on the part of their creators. As a set, they average more than 17,000 pounds, the equivalent of more than three large SUVs stacked one upon the other. The average ball is more than 36 feet in circumference, with the tallest in the set towering at a staggering 11 feet in height.
But which one of these balls is the biggest? It turns out that the answer to that question is hotly contested. All four giant twine balls claim to be the world’s largest, no one has provided consistent, up-to-date documentation of all of them. Very few have had the interest to travel the requisite 3000 miles to see all four sites, and even fewer have come with a mission to make an archival record of these artifacts for future generations. Until now.
In August 2014, I assembled a trusty team of friends, and we embarked on an extended journey to develop the most extensive collection of material ever generated about these sites. This is what we found.
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Giant Twine Ball Country is a distinct slice of American geography, a narrow 400-mile wide strip stretching from the shores of Lake Superior in the north to the Arkansas River in the south. The terrain is diverse, encompassing lush rural farmland spotted by a host of Midwestern cities including Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Omaha. Within these boundaries are the four giant twine balls, each hailing from a different state: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Missouri.
Unlike more singular sites of weirdo tourist kitsch, the giant twine balls are connected to one another through a distinct historical lineage. Their construction tells a story of how a specific regional idea arose, spread and mutated throughout the Midwest over the course of the 20th century.
Today, each has a carefully hedged claim to being the largest one in the world—one claims to be the largest “made by one man,” another is largest by virtue of weight, and yet another is the largest ball made of a particular type of twine.
But, in the beginning, there was only one man with dreams of making his twine ball the biggest. That distinction goes to Francis A. Johnson, son of Minnesota Senator Magnus Johnson.
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1950 was culturally significant for a few reasons: Peanuts by Charles Schulz was published for the first time. Joseph McCarthy kicked off the Red Scare with the announcement that Communists had infiltrated the Department of State. Rick Perry was born.
And in March of that year, in Meeker County, Minnesota, farmer Francis Johnson began winding baling twine, the core of what would eventually become the first Great Twine Ball of the Midwest. The original reason for doing so, it appears, is obscure even to the current residents of the town.
Starting a giant twine ball is a simple act. One begins by taking a piece of twine and wrapping it a tight and even fashion around two fingers until a rough shape begins to form. Then, after removing the fingers, one continues winding the twine around the resulting ball for as long as you so desire. For Johnson, that was for nearly the rest of his life, a full 29 years.
Johnson’s ball of twine would grow to weigh 17,400 pounds, extend over 40 feet in circumference, and stand 11 feet high. As it neared completion, the ball could only be manipulated with industrial-strength railroad jacks typically used for boxcars. When Johnson passed away, the ball was dedicated by his descendants to the city of Darwin, Minnesota for preservation for future generations.
In many ways, the Darwin ball, remains the most famous. It was the long-standing holder of the “biggest ball of twine” title in the Guinness Book of World Records, holding the title from its completion in 1979 until 1994, and was immortalized by Weird Al in his 1989 song “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota.” It even has a Twitter account.
But the Darwin ball was not alone. Early in its history, news of the project inspired Frank Stoeber, another farmer located hundreds of miles south in Cawker City, Kansas. Starting in 1953, Stoeber took it upon himself to compete for the title of largest ball. Although Cawker City was the first to hold the Guinness record starting in 1973, Stoeber’s death in 1974 gave Johnson an opening to surpass his challenger. Five years later, in 1979, the Guinness record keepers visited the Darwin ball, and announced that it had overtaken Stoeber’s record.
Rather than concede the title, Cawker City took up the charge of continuing to grow the ball, and more than 60 years later is still going. Visitors are encouraged to contribute to the project, and an annual “Twine-A-Thon” brings the community together to add to the project. It presently measures 41.42 feet in circumference, 8.06 feet in diameter, and 10.83 feet in height and contains more than 8,000,000 feet of twine. The most recent estimate of weight in 2013 puts the ball at a staggering 19,973 pounds. The Darwin camp views these continued posthumous efforts with some suspicion: While the Cawker City ball is now indisputably larger, the Darwin ball remains the largest “made by one man”—no additions have been made since Johnson halted in 1979.
True to their ongoing rivalry, the Darwin and Cawker City balls are cultural opposites. The Darwin ball is a dignified piece of history. It sits behind a wall of glass, entirely enclosed within a specially designed gazebo. The accompanying museum, nearly hidden behind the ball itself, is devoted to showcasing artifacts from Darwin’s history. In contrast, the Cawker City ball is very much a collaborative, ongoing effort. Their ball is stored in an open air enclosure, and visitors can walk right up and touch the monolith of twine made of a spectrum of shades, with stripes of fresh, bright yellow twine receding to grey in areas where the ball has been exposed for years.
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The Minnesota-Kansas rivalry that defined the first generation of giant twine ball construction had an unintentional side effect: It created a notoriety that encouraged others to produce their own. Spreading out from the epicenter in Minnesota, the phenomenon traveled hundreds of miles again, north to Wisconsin and south as far as Texas.
J.C. Payne played to win. Based in Valley View, Texas, the retired mason decided in 1987 that he could beat the existing record. For four years, Payne aggressively accumulated donated twine, eventually wrapping it into an enormous ball which was then certified by Guinness as the largest in 1994. Payne subsequently sold his creation to Ripley’s Believe It or Not, where it was moved to their museum in Branson, Missouri. Today, an admission fee of $17.99 stands between you and a chance to view the reigning behemoth.
This Branson ball breaks all the unspoken rules to obtain victory, and for that reason it remains the most controversial twine ball in the Big Four. The title of world’s largest twine ball is not merely a matter of size or weight. Style is critical, as well.
There are a few rules at work here. For one, the motivations have to be right. It is considered poor form to build a ball simply for financial gain or to grab hold of the record. Lottie, one of the caretakers of the Cawker City ball, told us conspiratorially that Payne sold his ball for tens of thousands of dollars, and noted with some pride that Cawker City received such an offer from Ripley’s and refused.
Another rule of twine ball greatness: One must use sisal twine, the traditional brown-colored twine made from the sisal plant. The Branson ball fails here, too. Lighter and multi-colored plastic twine was used, which broke the pattern set down by the Darwin and Cawker City balls. The resulting ball is flashier, but it weighs only 12,000 pounds. The brochure distributed at the Darwin ball remarks tartly that “[t]he now recorded largest ball of twine was made by several people and is constructed of plastic twine and weighs considerably less.” Plastic twine is simply too easy. It is stronger, easier to manage, and eases the complications of creating a ball of significant size.
Regardless of how the concluding act in this decades-long drama shakes out, a fourth and final ball of twine remains in the works. Inspired by a newspaper article in 1979, probably about the accession of the Darwin ball into the record books, James Frank Kotera (or JFK, as he refers to himself), of Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin, quietly began a project to build the biggest ball of twine in his backyard. Thirty-five years later, that work continues with no signs of stopping.
Constructed largely in eccentric isolation, the Nebagamon ball is a contender. JFK breaks the “classic” pattern of the Giant Twine Balls, using a dizzying collection of short strands of multicolored twine. This results in a ball that is significantly smaller (23.67 feet in circumference, 6.71 feet in diameter, and 8.13 feet high by our measurements), but one that is massively denser. JFK’s own estimate is that the ball weighs in at 20,800 pounds, a fact announced on the many self-made signs that dot his property. Those same signs also describe JFK’s experience hearing the voice of God, which instructed him to stop drinking in 1975.
Perhaps most importantly, JFK continues work on the Nebagamon ball. On that count alone, JFK’s effort suprasses the Darwin and Branson balls, whose singular creators have all since passed. Decades since its inception and at the cusp of victory, the Cawker City ball still faces an active, single-minded competitor.
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By itself, the process of measuring these balls is not a challenge. Length, width, and circumference can be easily determined with any garden-variety tape measure. Weight is a bit more difficult, but it is straightforward to make roughly accurate estimates based on self-reported data on the amounts of twine used by the caretakers of each ball, a cherished fact that is faithfully tracked down to the nearest foot.
Beginning in Minneapolis, our voyage took us from Lake Nebagamon to Darwin, Darwin to Cawker City, and Cawker City finally to Branson. At first, our measurements closely confirmed the story as it is popularly known. The Nebagamon ball is massively heavy, though relatively small compared to its cousins. The Darwin ball is impressive, the oldest, but a long mothballed monolith. The Cawker City ball is mammoth, ever-growing, though perhaps amateurishly constructed. All held true to the conventional twin ball wisdom until we reached Branson, purportedly home to the biggest twine ball of them all.
Our measurements place the Branson ball at 41.42 feet in circumference, 8.08 feet in diameter, and 10.58 feet in height. Lightly wound, the Branson ball appears to have settled somewhat in its years sitting at the exit of Ripley’s, as the placards claim a diameter for the ball of more than 13 feet. That makes the Cawker City ball a full foot larger in circumference than the purported reigning champion.
After all the controversy, what these measurements indicate is that the slow but continuous work of the community in Cawker City may have finally allowed it to achieve supremacy. Accounting for variance in measurement (all the balls are of an uneven shape, leading to some difference depending on where they are measured), we estimate that the Cawker City ball is within range or even slightly ahead of its Branson rival. After years out of the limelight, the Cawker City ball appears to be the final victor.
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For any scholar of these giant spheres of twine, the Lake Nebagamon ball is a specter of constant uncertainty. Just how many hidden, quietly maturing twine ball projects exist in the wild? Will another project burst onto the scene, upending the hierarchy of these giant balls once more?
Regionally famous balls of twine or twine-like material appear throughout the country. Weston, Missouri features a ball of string which weighs in at a relatively puny 3,712 pounds, and with a mere 19 foot circumference. Baltimore has the Haussener ball (825 pounds), another string-based creation, which once resided at the eponymous Baltimore restaurant, and now takes up a spot on the showroom floor of the Antique Man, a nearby curio dealer.
Indeed, one might imagine an impossibly long list of ever smaller twine balls sprinkled throughout the country. Somewhere on that great list is the little roll of sisal twine even you might have tucked away in a cabinet or tool shed. Whether big or small, one thing is clear: The next great heir to the legacy of Giant Twine Balls of the Midwest is out there somewhere.
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