Largest Twine Ball Rolled by One Man, Darwin, Minnesota.
Largest Twine Ball Rolled by One Man, Darwin, Minnesota.

Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota

Field review by the editors.

Darwin, Minnesota

Francis A. Johnson was 45 years old when he started rolling scraps of twine from his family's farm into a ball. Twelve years later, when the ball weighed two tons, a reporter from the Minneapolis Tribune asked him why. "My mother taught me not to waste anything," Francis said.

1985: Francis Johnson's Twine Ball at his house, visited by our 6-Foot Tall Hinged Man (seated).
1985: Francis Johnson's Twine Ball at his house, visited by our 6-Foot Tall Hinged Man (seated).

He may have been frugal, but Francis was also a collector (he once owned 7,000 pencils), and his twine ball was his biggest collection of all: the largest twine ball in the world. Neighbor-farmers would give Francis their twine scraps, and he would carefully square-knot the pieces together before adding them to the giant sphere in his yard. He was proud of its symmetrical shape and color. Francis would only use brown sisal twine, and he employed a railroad jack -- designed to lift multi-ton box cars -- to rotate the ball so that he could keep it round. The ball was such a perfect sphere that Francis chained it to a tree, apparently fearful that someone might simply roll it away.

2019: Downtown Twine Ball gazebo at dusk.
2019: Downtown Twine Ball gazebo at dusk.

Francis wrapped his twine ball strand by strand, from March 1950 until 1979, when he was forced to stop because of emphysema. Since he didn't smoke, his relatives blamed his illness on twine ball dust. He died in 1989, and two years later the ball was trucked into the center of Darwin, where it still sits today. On its way into downtown the ball was placed on Darwin's grain scale, and thus became the heaviest twine ball whose weight is verified: 17,400 pounds, or nearly nine tons.

Twine Ball photo op.
Twine Ball photo op.

Ripley's Believe it or Not offered to buy the twine ball. The corporate novelty-sucker came sniffing around Darwin, hoping to purchase the ball and place it in one of its museums. Francis's relatives said no, and instead sold Ripley's another of Francis's prized collections: 1,700 nail aprons. Unsatisfied, Ripley's moved on to a lesser twine ball, and built a museum around it in Branson, Missouri (It's advertised as the World's Largest, but isn't).

It was also around this time that "Weird Al" Yankovic released his road trip anthem, "The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota," apparently after reading about the ball (and other lyric-friendly attractions) in our 1986 Roadside America book. This combined exposure brought the twine ball new legions of fans, who continue to make holy pilgrimages to Darwin. According to mayor Josh Johnson -- no relation to Francis -- the twine ball averages 150 visitors a day during the summer months. Several have hitchhiked to Darwin with "Twine Ball or Bust" signs, which are displayed in the adjacent Twine Ball Museum.

Twine Ball Pilgrims.
Twine Ball Pilgrims.

The Twine Ball is now sheltered inside a glass-walled gazebo. If you ask at the museum, they'll unlock the gazebo to let you get within sniffing distance of Francis's creation (with minimal twine dust exposure). "It's not the full twine tour unless you get the scent of 70-year-old twine," said mayor Johnson.

The museum is usually open every day in the summer, but the mayor said that even when it isn't, visitors can just ask around town -- someone can usually be found who has the key. "We enjoy showing them Francis's prize possession, his masterpiece," said the mayor. "We're fans just like they are."

Mayor Johnson himself enjoys viewing the Twine Ball from the street at dusk and dawn, when the sky is aglow and the gazebo lights are on. "It's a wonderfully eerie experience," he said. "Kind of feels like hallowed ground."

Up close with the Twine Ball.
Up close with the Twine Ball.

Unlike the giant twine ball in Cawker City, Kansas, where visitors are allowed to add their own twine, Francis Johnson's ball is preserved as he left it in 1979: 12 feet high and 40 feet around. Mayor Johnson said this has always been the town's intent. The contributions of twine by Francis's neighbors were not only a source of local pride, they made the ball a kind of community-wide artifact. It was the work of one man, and Darwin wanted to show respect for his decades of compulsive labor. Also, this is the alpha giant twine ball, the one that inspired all those that followed.

"There was a certain purity to what Francis Johnson did," said the mayor. "He wasn't trying to make his ball the largest. People who knew him said he just did it because it was there."

Also see: Towns With Balls

Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota

Address:
200-298 N. 1st St., Darwin, MN
Directions:
Hwy 12 to Darwin, turn left onto 1st St./CR 14. The twine ball will be on the left, next to the water tower.
Hours:
Lit at night. Twine Ball Museum open daily in summer.
RA Rates:
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Nearby Offbeat Places

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In the region:
Hermann the German, New Ulm, MN - 55 mi.

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