Minnesota falling behind in twine-ball competition

Photo: Amy Meredith via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

For reasons that are still not entirely clear, farmer Francis Johnson of Darwin, Minnesota, starting winding bailing twine into the nation’s first large ball of twine that would make people pull off the road to have a look.

It weighs 17,400 pounds, extends 40 feet around, is 11 feet high and has been hailed as the world’s largest ball of twine.

Is it?

There are four large balls of twine in the nation, all claiming to be the largest.

So Tim Hwang of The Atlantic went on a road trip last month to decide once and for all which — the one in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Kansas, or Missouri — is legit.

Today, he revealed the results. It’s not Johnson’s anymore.

Early in its history, news of the project inspired Frank Stoeber, another farmer located hundreds of miles south in Cawker City, Kansas. Starting in 1953, Stoeber took it upon himself to compete for the title of largest ball. Although Cawker City was the first to hold the Guinness record starting in 1973, Stoeber’s death in 1974 gave Johnson an opening to surpass his challenger.

Five years later, in 1979, the Guinness record keepers visited the Darwin ball, and announced that it had overtaken Stoeber’s record.

Rather than concede the title, Cawker City took up the charge of continuing to grow the ball, and more than 60 years later is still going. Visitors are encouraged to contribute to the project, and an annual “Twine-A-Thon” brings the community together to add to the project.

It presently measures 41.42 feet in circumference, 8.06 feet in diameter, and 10.83 feet in height and contains more than 8,000,000 feet of twine. The most recent estimate of weight in 2013 puts the ball at a staggering 19,973 pounds. The Darwin camp views these continued posthumous efforts with some suspicion:

While the Cawker City ball is now indisputably larger, the Darwin ball remains the largest “made by one man”—no additions have been made since Johnson halted in 1979.

But there’s a “new” contender. Finally, Wisconsin is poised to eclipse Minnesota at something.

James Frank Kotera (or JFK, as he refers to himself), of Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin, quietly began a project to build the biggest ball of twine in his backyard. Thirty-five years later, that work continues with no signs of stopping.

Constructed largely in eccentric isolation, the Nebagamon ball is a contender. JFK breaks the “classic” pattern of the Giant Twine Balls, using a dizzying collection of short strands of multicolored twine. This results in a ball that is significantly smaller (23.67 feet in circumference, 6.71 feet in diameter, and 8.13 feet high by our measurements), but one that is massively denser.

JFK’s own estimate is that the ball weighs in at 20,800 pounds, a fact announced on the many self-made signs that dot his property. Those same signs also describe JFK’s experience hearing the voice of God, which instructed him to stop drinking in 1975.

Perhaps most importantly, JFK continues work on the Nebagamon ball. On that count alone, JFK’s effort suprasses the Darwin and Branson balls, whose singular creators have all since passed. Decades since its inception and at the cusp of victory, the Cawker City ball still faces an active, single-minded competitor.

(h/t: Matt Wells)