World's Largest Ball of Twine
In the language of roadside attractions, "giant twine ball" is a magic phrase. Three simple words, and you instantly understand the intersecting trackways of travel and obsessive behavior. Visions of a small town, a solitary man, and a big ball by the side of the road immediately come to mind.
Giant twine balls are rare. The four largest that we know of are in Kansas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and at the Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum in Branson, Missouri (Elsewhere in Missouri is the smaller World's Largest Ball of String).
The Branson museum shelters the usual hodge-podge of Ripley's oddities: a two-headed calf, a full-size stagecoach made of toothpicks, a shoe once owned by the world's tallest man. It's the twine ball that makes the place unique.
According to museum manager John Dixon, the building was actually built around the ball. "We'd have to take the roof off to get it out of here."
(The twine ball's mass helped anchor the museum securely when a tornado spun through Branson in 2012. Or that's one theory, anyway.)
The ball fills a corner near the museum exit, behind some crowd control bars. It's made entirely of multicolored plastic bailing twine, and accompanied by some perfunctory signage and a rust-pitted dial, suggesting that the ball rests on a mighty scale. And that's it; Ripley's expects visitors to be briefly awestruck and then move on to the car built of wood or the guy who could hold three golf balls in his mouth. John told us that one of the least-favorite jobs in the museum is cleaning the twine ball with a shop vac.
We got in touch with Elsie Payne, wife of the late J.C. Payne, the retired Texas brick mason who rolled the ball. She said that it began simply as a way for J.C. to get his extra hay bale twine out of the way of his cows, who otherwise might have eaten it (Payne owned a small farm in his golden years).
One day his youngest son called his attention to a newspaper article (possibly a 1986 review of the first Roadside America book) that mentioned that the world's largest twine ball was in Darwin, Minnesota, and stood 12 feet high. J.C. figured he could beat that. From 1987 to 1991 he gathered all the twine he could from neighboring ranches and dairies and rolled a ball 13.5 feet tall. He named it Clonia Crew, had it certified by Guinness as the World's Largest, and in 1993 sold it to Ripley's for a rumored $25,000. Ripley's trucked it to its then-new Branson museum in November of that year, where it's sat ever since.
J.C.'s energies were not exhausted. "He always had to have something to do," said Elsie. "He couldn't sit around twiddling his thumbs." J.C. went on to roll the World's Largest Ball of Barbed Wire, an orb he was still expanding when he died in 2004.
J.C.'s twine ball has critics in the other towns with balls. Darwin, Minnesota, said that J.C. had help, but Elsie said that J.C. really did roll it all by himself. Cawker City, Kansas, dismissed it as a "plastic string" ball -- Cawker City's ball is made of old-fashioned brown sisal twine -- and hinted that Guinness certified J.C.'s ball merely because it was colorful.
A more substantial criticism is that J.C.'s ball weighs only 13,000 pounds, far less than any of the other giant twine balls. It suggests that J.C. wound his ball loose just to make it big.
What really upsets twine ball purists, however, is that J.C. was apparently more obsessed with the world record than with the ball. The other Giant Twine Balls are labors of love that spanned decades; J.C. rolled his in a mere five years. Having reached his goal, he sold his creation to a corporate museum attraction chain that was just going to stick it in with a bunch of other stuff. It's difficult to imagine the other Giant Twine Ball masters doing that. They probably would have liked to have been entombed within their balls, or at least underneath them.
Still, there's no denying that J.C. Payne rolled one of the world's four great Giant Twine Balls, regardless of which one really merits the "Largest" title. Elsie said that J.C. built a kind of spindle that allowed him to add twine quickly, a mysterious invention that apparently followed him to his grave, since no subsequent twine ball speedsters have appeared. Perhaps that's for the best. A Giant Twine Ball shouldn't be easy, and -- although we appreciate Ripley's meticulous stewardship -- it really should be the one attraction in an otherwise sleepy little town, fostering civic pride and forcing travelers to detour miles out of their way just to see it.