JFK's Twine Ball: World's Largest?
Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin
James Frank Kotera is a man of few words. He leads a quiet, well-ordered, meticulous life. Five days a week he's a dependable employee at the Highland dump. In the winter he rides his snowmobile. And in between he works on his giant twine ball.
Mr. Kotera prefers to be called JFK. "My initials are JFK. I'm a famous man!" he says, escorting us across his small, tidy yard, decorated with duck decoys and other plastic birds stuck on poles. "People give them to me at the dump," he says.
In the back, by the tree line, stands an open-air shelter. Beneath it sits JFK's enormous, football-shaped twine ball, shielded from the heavy winter snows that blanket this part of northern Wisconsin.
On April 3, 1975, God told JFK to stop drinking, and he did. God, satisfied, hasn't issued an order to JFK since. It isn't God that's commanding JFK to make the twine ball. JFK is doing it all by himself.
"I started in 1979," JFK tells us. "I seen it in the paper -- somebody else working on a ball of twine -- so I figured I'm gonna try and do one." JFK hands us a yellowed newspaper photo from 1979 that shows him standing next to his ball -- which already weighed 500 pounds. The caption concludes: "He said he plans to turn in his collection for recycling once he sets a new record in twine collecting."
We ask JFK to demonstrate his tuck-and-tie method. He shows us how he carefully threads each new piece of twine in and out of the already snug strands, tying the ends to keep the ball tight. "I weave it over and under, over and under, so it won't fall apart," he explains. JFK gets his red, green, and hay-colored twine from his neighbor, who uses it to bale hay. JFK never uses twine from anyone else. He is in no hurry, and the twine ball grows only as fast as his neighbor's livestock eat.
The ball, which JFK sometimes calls "Mr. Twine Ball," has a small (47 lb) companion, "Junior," that is made of yarn. JFK hefts it for a photo, and tells us how he knows the exact weight of the big ball -- 20,800 pounds. "I take a whole bunch of twine, put it in a garbage bag, and I weigh the garbage bag." He does this each time that he adds twine to the ball, and methodically keeps a running tab.
It is difficult to say whether JFK is proudest of his twine ball -- an impressive accomplishment -- or his work in the Highland dump. "I'm the king of all dump people!" he exclaims. "People bring their garbage bags, and I pile them up in a great big dumpster, on top of each other." Instead of simply tossing the bags in, JFK carefully and neatly stacks them. The more that he can fit, the longer he can delay calling the trucking service to haul it away. He saves his town money, and he is proud of it.
As with the twine ball, JFK keeps meticulous records of how many bags he has packed into each dumpster. "In 2003 I got 3,370," he tells us, reading the number off of a list.
JFK is shy in person, but he is more confident in print -- on the signs that he posts around his property. In bold, clear pencil lettering on strips of wood, he declares: "I'M THE GREATEST LIVING SMARTEST DUMP MAN YOU EVER SAW and HIGHLAND PEOPLE COME TO THE WORLD'S ONLY NUMBER ONE DUMP IN GOD'S GREEN EARTH AROUND THE WORLD and I AM JUST SO THANKFUL GOD MADE ME THIS WAY. AND EVERYONE IN HIGHLAND IS SO THANKFUL OF ME FOR SAVING MONEY AND DUMPSTERS. JUST THINK ABOUT THIS MAN."
We ask JFK about the ultimate purpose of his twine ball, and he tells us that "I'm gonna make it as big as I can get it." But what about posterity? What does a giant twine ball say about a man? And who will preserve JFK's ten ton legacy when he is gone? His family? The town?
"I don't worry about that," he tells us. "You never know, but I ain't worried about that."
The fairest assessment of a giant twine ball's size would be the number of miles of twine within it, but no one really knows how much the biggest balls contain. They also sag as they grow, making girth or height variable and problematic as gauges of size. Weight seems to be the best available measure, as it separates the loosely-wound from the honestly dense. If JFK's calculations are correct, his ball is the biggest of all.
- Lake Nebagamon, WI
James Frank Kotera (sole ballmeister)
- 20,800 lbs
- 23.7 ft circumference
- Cawker City, KS
Frank Stoeber (d. 1974: added onto by others)
- 19,973 lbs
- 41.4 ft circumference
- Darwin, MN
Francis Johnson (d. 1989: sole ballmeister)
- 17,400 lbs
- 40 ft circumference
- Branson, MO
J.C. Payne (sole ballmeister)
- over 12,000 lbs
- 41.4 ft circumference