JFK's World's Largest Ball of Twine
Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin
What kind of man creates the World's Largest Ball of Twine? Drive to the Northwoods of Wisconsin and talk to James Frank Kotera. The ball is sitting in his back yard.
James Frank Kotera is quiet, shy. Three days a week he works at the Highland dump. The rest of the time he's usually home, adding twine to his ball. He's been doing it since 1979.
"My initials are JFK. I'm a famous man!" he said, greeting us out by his mailbox, which is decorated with duck decoys and other plastic birds stuck on poles. "People give them to me at the dump," he said.
In the back, by the tree line, sits JFK's enormous oval ball, shielded from rain and snow beneath an open-air shelter, resting on cinder blocks.
JFK handed us several sheets of paper, densely covered with handwritten notes. They explained how JFK is a "ground hog" (He was born on Feb. 2), how grateful his neighbors are for his work at the dump, and how happy he is with his twine ball. One passage described the turning point in his life: April 3, 1975:
"My real God came to Jim's home on Oakdale Road, into Jim's room. As I was getting up God was touching me on my back: 'Jim, this is your real God.' And I said, 'God is in my room touching me on my back, wow, it's God.' 'Yes, Jim,' my God said to me, 'I want you to stop your drinking. Turn that life of your[s] around, Jim, or you will not be mightily famous in my world, Jim.' And I said to my God, 'Famous?' 'Yes, Jim,' my God said to me. 'World's only real Ground Hog JFK Twine Man of the World.' 'Wow. Thank you, God, for coming to me and telling me this.' And Mr. JFK stopped his drinking just like that."
Four years later -- to the day -- clean-and-sober JFK started his twine ball, and it quickly made him famous just as God said it would.
JFK handed us a yellowed newspaper photo from 1979 that showed him standing next to his ball, which already weighed 500 pounds. We spoke with JFK on his 70th birthday -- February 2, 2017 -- and asked him how much the ball weighs now. "22,425 pounds," he answered. How does he know that? "I take a whole bunch of twine, put it in a garbage bag, and I weigh the garbage bag." He does this each time he adds twine to the ball, and methodically keeps a running tab.
"I'll show you how I do it," JFK said, climbing a ladder. JFK weaves different colored twine into the ball, creating patterns that resemble synapses in a giant human brain. "Over and under, over and under," he sang while he worked. "That's the right way; it will never ever fall apart." JFK told us that the ball is now eight feet high and 22 feet wide. "It's settled quite a bit," he said. "I try to make it as round as I can, you know, but it's hard."
The shelter not only keeps the ball dry, it also allows JFK to spend a lot more time working on it, sometimes many hours a day. "If it was out in the sun, the twine would be too hot."
"See these hands?" JFK said, extending them for our inspection. "God gave me His hands. If they were my hands they'd be all sores. They ain't got no sores." JFK's hands are not only ulcer-free, they're surprisingly soft and supple.
If JFK's figures are correct (and his fondness for detail suggests they are), then he has indeed created the World's Largest Ball of Twine, outpacing a nearly-as-big "crowdsourced" ball in Kansas.
And even if, some day, JFK falls behind in the twine ball race, he's proud that he did it all himself. "No other Twine Man in the world can do this," he said, grinning. "Every day I'm havin' a ball!"
The fairest assessment of a giant twine ball's size would be the number of miles of twine in it, but no one really knows how much the biggest balls contain. They also sag as they grow, making girth unreliable as a gauge of largeness. 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 ballmaster)
- 22,425 lbs
- 8 ft high, 22 ft wide
- Cawker City, KS
Frank Stoeber (d. 1974: added onto by others)
- 20,230 lbs
- 43 ft circumference
- Darwin, MN
Francis Johnson (d. 1989: sole ballmaster)
- 17,400 lbs
- 40 ft circumference
- Branson, MO
J.C. Payne (d. 2004: sole ballmaster)
- 13,000 lbs
- 41.4 ft circumference