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In Minnesota, under a Plexiglas pagoda, rests what is arguably the biggest ball of twine in the world. It was the proud work of one man, a farmer named Mr. Francis A. Johnson, who started out by winding a piece of twine from a hay bale around his fingers in 1950, and for some reason decided to keep going.

Word of the twine ball soon spread, and neighboring farmers began to contribute their twine. In time, the ball grew too big to be manipulated by hand and Johnson had to use railroad jacks in order to be able to wrap it properly.

Johnson stopped work on the ball in 1979, at which time it was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records. The ball weighed 21,140 pounds, was about 40 feet around, 12 feet in diameter, and stood about 11 feet high.

Astonishingly, Johnson wasn’t alone in his ambition to create the world’s biggest twine ball, and faced competition in the form of Frank Stroeber, from Cawker City, Kansas. But Stroeber died in 1974, and although his community (population 800) touchingly took up the task at their annual parade and Twine-a-Thon, the Cawker City ball lost the allure and mystery of being a one-person creation.

Johnson himself died in 1989. There is evidence to suggest that forty years of handling the chemically treated agave fiber twine (also called sisal) aggravated his emphysema. In other words, the ball probably hastened his demise.

Johnson’s record was eventually bumped out of The Guinness Book of World Records in 1994 by JC Payne of Valleyview, Texas, who sensibly opted to use lighter and safer nylon twine and a custom-built system of pulleys. Payne subsequently sold his 13'2½" diameter, 41'6" circumference ball to "Ripley's Believe It Or Not!", but couldn’t escape controversy over the actual height of his twine ball, and rumors that he received help with his work. Add to this the fact that his ball is multi-colored and is perhaps better described as a string ball, and it is easy to see why his claim to the record is rejected by twine ball purists.

One last detail: the Minnesota home of Johnson’s twine ball is called Darwin. Just thought I’d mention that.


    Sources:
  • The wonderfully titled "Brief History of Twine" page at http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Theater/5805/history.html which is a reprint of the short history posted next to the Johnson twine ball
  • The "Darwin's Twine Vs. The Others" page at http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Theater/5805/stack.html
  • "Roadside America", by Barth, Kirby, Smith and Wilkins (Simon and Schuster, NY, 1986)
  • A Fortean Times (FT 137) report culled from "Roadside America" and reports in the Toronto National Post and the Austin (TX) American-Statesman.

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