World's Largest Ball of Twine
Cawker City, Kansas
When exactly did the citizens of Cawker City bug out on their big ball? We're not sure. But one thing is certain -- what started as one man's convenient storage of scrap twine has mutated into a community project, binding together the whole town.
The World's Largest Ball of Twine endures as a paragon of strange US tourist attractions. Uttering the phrase instantly conveys core roadside values -- the mind-boggling achievement, the one-track obsession, the over-the-top silliness. For us, visiting a Twine Ball is a religious pilgrimage. That's why we feel bad we're two hours late....
The Twine Ball story began in 1953, when farmer Frank Stoeber, like thousands of his rural brethren, found it tidy and efficient to roll spare bits of sisal twine into a small ball in his barn. But over the years, instead of re-using or disposing of the twine, Frank kept rolling. By 1957, his twine ball weighed 2 1/2 tons and stood 8-ft. tall. By 1961, when he turned it over to the town, Stoeber had over 1,600,000 feet of twine rolled into a sphere 11 feet in diameter.
A few states away in Darwin, Minnesota, Francis A. Johnson had been rolling his own twine since 1950. He kept it up, four hours a day, until he died in 1989. Though twine ball battle statistics from the critical early years are hard to come by, we believe Stoeber, starting later than Johnson, matched and surpassed his achievement in the late 1950s. But when Stoeber stopped rolling and eventually died in 1974, Johnson surged back, broke the 11-ft. diameter "Twine Barrier" and continued until his own death in 1989. Darwin's 12-ft. diameter ball continues as a celebrated town shrine, and not an inch of twine has been added that wasn't wrapped by Johnson's own hands.
Cawker City faced a dilemma. They wanted to preserve Stoeber's accomplishment as a single-minded Dreamer. But his twine ball would remain for all time an also-ran, a fading and forlorn claim to fame; if more contenders came along it might drop entirely from the Great List of Obsessions.
So the town took action.
They picked up where Stoeber left off and continued to roll sisal twine. They organized an annual Twine-A-Thon, where anyone can step up and wrap more scrap twine onto the ball. In 1988, it outgrew its old gazebo and was moved to a more expansive roofed area.
Today, the ominous sphere squats at the center of a whirl of twine ball-related boosterism and activity. Current caretakers Linda and Jack Clover break out the twine spools and wrapping apparatus at a moment's notice, and police for improper wrapping (string and yarn are not allowed). After 2003's Twine-A-Thon, total twine length was recorded as 7,049,191 feet. A souvenir shop across the street hawks memorabilia -- hats, shirts, little twine ball models.
While Cawker City suffers from the same empty Main Street maladies that have devastated most rural towns, something different is going on here. Vacant storefronts have been turned into dioramas depicting local history. A Twine Walk of painted footprints meanders along the sidewalk (the twisty path is blamed on local high school boys recruited to paint).
Most notable is a recent explosion of twine art all along the main drag. The paintings, interpretations of works by great masters, answer the question "What if Mona Lisa had been holding a twine ball?"
Artist Cher Olson (identified as the "Methodist minister's wife" by whoever picked up the phone at the Chamber of Commerce) has painted over 40 canvases -- such as "American Gothic (with Twine Ball)," "The Scream (with Twine Ball)."
We arrive summer of 2003... late -- distracted further west by a giant Van Gogh easel, Prairie Dog Town, all-black town Nicodemus, and the home of Porky Pig's animator. We called ahead a few days earlier, hoping the souvenir stand would be open. Linda and Jack Clover are hanging out at a picnic table next to the twine ball in 90 degree heat. Linda jumps up to greet us, all smiles, while Jack, irascible chief twine roller, mutters "I told you they were coming.... you're two hours late...." We apologize and lamely explain our delays. It seems to be okay; there are plenty of other tourists stopping to drink in the Twine Ball vibes.
Linda fills us in on last weekend's festivities -- yup, we just missed the Twine-A-Thon -- while Jack starts marching clockwise around the ball, spool in hand. We get an opportunity to add a couple of strands around the circumference. Then Cher Olson shows up, and walks us around town touring the art displays. She says they were created to help local children appreciate art.
Across from the twine ball, in her studio, new paintings are underway. One completed masterpiece can no longer be exhibited publicly. It's an oil rendition of the nude statue of David, his privates hidden by a twine ball. It was only on display for a few weeks before a local women complained of the impropriety. After all, it was painted by a minister's wife.
The Twine Ball faces a new challenge -- someday it may no longer be classified as a ball. Stoeber and Johnson developed elaborate techniques to wrap on all sides, including the bottom, which required lifting their monsters on forklifts and chains. Cawker City's ball of today isn't in any position to be lifted, so the sides are accumulating a material imbalance. It's exacerbated by children clambering on top and causing outer layers to puddle around the base.
And a ceiling leak isn't helping the situation -- the World's Largest Twine Ball is pungent with the smell of moist rot.
But Cawker City won't let itself be beaten by humidity or gravity -- not while the great fibroid mass exerts its influence on those around it.