World's Largest Twine Ball
One runs across more than a few balls on the obsession landscape -- balls of stamps, or of barbed wire. But special tribute must be paid to the Mother of all moss gathering pursuits -- the giant twine ball. These balls have become symbols of civic pride for a few lucky communities.
Francis A. Johnson was a quiet man who spent his entire life in Meeker County (His dad, Magnus Johnson, was a briefly U.S. Senator from Minnesota). For reasons that are lost to time Francis began rolling a ball of twine in his basement 1950. Francis rolled twine four hours a day, every day. He eventually moved the ball onto his front lawn and used railroad jacks to ensure proper wrapping; Johnson cared as much about his ball's roundness as its diameter. For 29 years this magnificent sphere evolved at Johnson's farm, and he eventually built a circular open air shed to protect it from the elements.
Johnson didn't stop until 1979. By then his ball weighed almost 9 tons and was 12 feet wide. He died of emphysema, and the town figured that nearly thirty years of twine dust killed him. But Darwin was also proud of Johnson, and somehow rolled his big ball next to the water tower. It's known as "World's Largest Twine Ball Rolled By One Man" because a rival twine ball in Cawker City, Kansas, is regularly added-to by visitors and townspeople. Darwin feels that this is cheating.
The World's Largest Twine Ball Rolled By One Man is enclosed in a plexiglass and wood gazebo, with the plexiglass barrier providing the usual challenges to photography. You have to crouch close to a vent for a good whiff. Signage around the ball sometimes simply refers to it as "The World's Largest Twine Ball," leaving out the clarifying coda. It's not quite as round as it once was, and it now has it's own souvenir stand. If the stand is closed when you visit, walk across the street to the Twine Ball Inn -- someone there may be able to alert someone else to open the stand for you.
A gray-haired local woman approached us when we visited. "Are you here to see our Twine Ball?" she asked. "You know, Weird Al Yankovic wrote a song about it. He's even been here to visit." A staunch Darwinian, she proudly announces, unprompted, that this twine ball was rolled "by ONE man." And she adds, "We don't have much of a town left, but the twine ball really draws 'em in."
The town's "Twine Ball Days" festival is the second Saturday in August.
Frank Stoeber of Cawker City, Kansas, saw Johnson's twine ball as a challenge. He started amassing his own ball, and soon had over 1,600,000 feet of twine rolled into a sphere 11 feet in diameter -- only a foot shy of the Darwin champion. Success seemed inevitable. Then, in 1974, Frank Stoeber died.
Cawker City, in a touching tribute, built an open-air gazebo over his ball and set it up on Highway 24 in town, where it can still be touched and whiffed by travelers.
The Cawker City ball has become a community project, where locals and visitors can add twine. Every August at the Twine-a-thon, locals celebrate Frank's legacy. As of 2013's Twine-A-Thon, total twine length was recorded as 8,064,470 feet of sisal twine, estimated to be 19,973 pounds, giving Cawker City twine ball supremacy. But it is no longer the work of a lone fanatic, and Darwin points to the careless puddling of twine at its base as evidence that Cawker City's "ball" is nothing of the sort.
Ripley's Believe It Or Not joined the big ball fray when they purchased a bruiser for one of their museums.
In their Branson, Missouri location, they host a six-ton plastic string ball rolled in Mountain Springs, Texas. In 1992, owner J.C. Payne, a 71-year-old rancher, asked Guinness and Ripley's to declare him the new king of string. His multicolored ball of string sat in his barn, with a 41.5-foot circumference, 18 inches greater than the largest on record. It stands 13 feet, 2.5 inches tall. Officials at Darwin maintain this is another "group effort" -- not the work of one man. And Cawker City twine scholars note that the Branson ball uses "plastic string," bloodlessly procured, applied, and displayed -- no lifelong labor of love there.
A relatively unknown twine ball, rolled by James Frank Kotera at Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin since 1979, threatens upset with its claim as the heaviest. No puffy cotton candy effort like the Ripley's string ball, or group-hug like Cawker City's, JFK's solo project tips the scales at over 20,545 pounds, by his calculation. And he's still rolling....