Some Americans have a lot of pride and competitiveness wrapped up in balls of string.
Hence, there are several large balls of twine in the United States that each lay claim to the title “World’s Largest.”
That might seem like an easy debate to settle: just measure each ball and declare a winner, right? But as writer Tim Hwang learned this summer, there are subtle – and not so subtle – distinctions between the “largest” claims made by the caretakers of each twine ball. Not to mention philosophical differences that can’t be settled with weights and measures.
A brief history of giant twine balls in the US
There’s no dispute as to which contender is the oldest. In March 1950, Francis Johnson started rolling twine into a ball in Darwin, Minn.
“Twine was accumulating around on the farm there, and I said, ‘I’m going to tie it up in a ball,’” Johnson told roving journalist Charles Kuralt in 1977.
Three years after Johnson began rolling that accumulating twine, Frank Stoeber in Cawker City, Kan., began working on his own big ball of twine. In 1973 the Guinness Book of World Records, the self-described “universally recognized authority on record-breaking achievement,” crowned Stoeber’s the largest ball of twine in the world.
But Stoeber died the following year and Johnson continued winding twine in Minnesota until 1979, when the folks at Guinness named his ball the world’s largest.
In 1987, Texas rancher J.C. Payne began working on his ball of twine and five years later Guinness said it had surpassed the Minnesota ball. The next year, Payne sold his record-breaking twine ball to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum in Branson, Mo., and then set about rolling the world’s largest ball of barbed wire.
The twine frays
At this point it might seem pretty straightforward – Guinness officials say Payne’s ball, now in Missouri, is the biggest and they’re more or less the arbiter of such things.
But the people of Cawker City point out that Payne used plastic twine, which is lighter and easier to work with than the sisal twine used in the Kansas and Minnesota balls. They also continue to add to Stoeber’s twine ball, as they have ever since the Minnesota ball surpassed it in 1979. Tourists can even wind twine around the ball, and there’s an annual “twine-a-thon” each summer aimed at making sure the Kansas ball continues growing.
Johnson’s ball of twine has not been added to by the people of Darwin, Minn., or anyone else, since 1979. After Johnson died in 1989, his family gave the ball to the city. It sits in a glass-enclosed gazebo next to a sign that proclaims it the “World’s Largest By 1 Man Twine Ball.”
And there’s a fourth contender for the “World’s Largest” title, and there’s some heft to the claim.
JFK – ‘The real twine man’
“I’m the real guy,” said James Frank Kotera as he stood on an aluminum step ladder leaned against the massive, potato-shaped ball of twine in his backyard near Lake Nebagamon, Wis.
Kotera ends most sentences with “having a ball” as he talks to visitors who stop by his home to see his contender for the twine ball record. He’s a man who counts as significant what others might just call happenstance. For example, his initials are the same as America’s 35th president so he refers to himself as “JFK,” and his birthday is Feb. 2.
“So I’m the real ground hog, JFK, twine man,” he said. “You can’t beat that. No twine man can beat that.”
JFK said he began his twine ball in 1979 after reading about others in the newspaper – probably about the time Johnson’s Minnesota ball unseated Stoeber’s Kansas ball as the largest.
JFK doesn’t wind lengths of twine around the ball, he weaves short pieces into the strands already on the ball.
“Weave it over and under. This is the right way of doing it so it don’t fall apart,” he said as he poked a short piece of twine under then over other strands before pulling it tight and tying the end.
As a result, JFK’s ball is tighter and denser than the other balls, which is why he claims to have the largest ball by weight. He collects the twine – given to him by neighbors who have horses – in a bag and weighs batches of twine before weaving them into the ball.
By JFK’s calculations, his twine ball is just shy of 21,000 pounds. The most recent estimate for the Kansas ball put it just under 20,000 pounds, the Minnesota ball is estimated at about 17,400 pounds, and the ball in Missouri – the Guinness record holder- tips the scales at 13,000 pounds.
Guinness doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to take the title away from the ball at the Ripley’s museum. But perhaps it will be spurred to reevaluate that position now that the Kansas ball, according to measurements taken by writer Tim Hwang, is about a foot larger than the ball in Missouri.