Roadside attractions are an essential part of any American road trip. And let’s face it, from the world’s largest buffalo and a palace constructed of corn, to a house shaped like a shoe, a giant blue ox and a troll under a bridge, there’s certainly no shortage of fun and quirky stops along our nation’s highways and byways. But who’d of ever thought that two different locales would vie for the title of the world’s largest twine ball? And what a competition it was! Ultimately the Guinness Book of World Records declared a winner, but the runner up put an interesting spin on it all. The good news is, both are accessible, and they are definitely worth a visit on your travels across the US.
Located about an hour west of Minneapolis, the Darwin twine ball weighs an impressive 8.7 tons and stands 11 feet tall. Francis Johnson began winding the ball of sisal twine in his basement, but today it sits in a Plexiglas covered kiosk in downtown Darwin. It’s pretty easy to find — just take Highway 12 to Darwin, turn south on 1st St, and look for the water tower. The twine ball is located on the corner of William and 1st Streets, right next to the water tower.
There’s no parking lot, but it’s not a busy town so you can usually snag a spot on the street. There’s a curb-cut up to the sidewalk which leads to the twine ball. Although you can’t actually touch the twine ball, you can walk around the kiosk and see it in its entirety.
In back, there’s ramp access up to the twine ball museum and gift shop. Housed in a former railroad station, the museum contains information about Francis Johnson, as well as some of his prized possessions. It also has old town artifacts, railroad timetables, photos and calendars. It’s almost like a little Darwin history museum. And if you want to buy a twine ball hoodie, they have a small gift shop too.
Across the street there is an accessible picnic shelter in the city park. You have to cross over a grassy area to get to the picnic tables on the cement pad, but it’s a level roll. You can kill two birds with one stone at this stop. Not only can you see a quirky roadside attraction, but you can also enjoy a pleasant lunch in the country. And that’s a hard combination to beat!
The Kansas twine ball is definitely off the beaten path, but that’s part of the charm of it all. Located about an hour-and-a-half northwest of Salina in Cawker City, you definitely have to go out of your way to visit this twine ball. It was started by Frank Stoeber in 1953 with sisal twine from his hay bales. Frank had been a bit under the weather and he thought twine winding would be a good way to pass the time. After he recovered, he found he had a new hobby, so he decided to keep it up.
Today the twine ball sits in an open-air pavilion on Highway 24 between Maple Street and Lake Drive. Like Darwin, there’s no parking lot; however there is an accessible street space near the corner of Highway 24 and Lake Street. From there, it’s best to head up Lake Street and cross over the grass and access the twine ball pavilion from the back. The front entrance has a six-inch step, but the rear the step is less pronounced. With a little assistance, wheelchair-users can bump up the back incline and get up-close-and-personal with the twine ball.
Unlike the Darwin rendition, the Cawker City twine ball is still growing. Even though Frank Stoeber is no longer alive, the town residents have taken up his cause. Visitors can also get some twine to add to the ball at the gift shop across the street. Best bet is to walk or roll in the street to get there, as the sidewalks are in disrepair and steep curb-cuts have been cobbled on to them. On the plus side, there isn’t much traffic in this town either.
There is one step up into the gift shop, but volunteers will gladly bring out a length of twine to add to the ball. It all goes into the official tally at the end of the year. Additionally a Twine-A-Thon is held on the third Saturday in August, when they encourage visitors and residents alike to add to the total. As of September 2013 the twine ball weighed nearly 10 tons, but it keeps growing. And don’t forget to purchase your “official twine winder” t-shirt while you’re there. Trust me, you’ll definitely get a lot of questions about it; in fact, it’s a great conversation starter.
Who’s the Winner?
So which twine ball is officially the largest twine ball in the world? Well the Cawker City one was the first to receive the Guinness designation in 1973. Then when Frank Stoeber died in 1974, Francis Johnson kept winding. Five years later, in 1979, Guinness gave the title to the Darwin twine ball. But the Cawker City folks didn’t throw in the towel, and they decided to add to their twine ball. Today the Cawker City twine ball continues to grow, while the Darwin twine ball now bears the tagline “the world’s largest twine ball wound by one man”.
The friendly competition between these two twine balls continues today, at least in the minds of some of the locals. It’s somewhat entertaining to inquire about the rival twine ball, as you’ll certainly be treated to an lively conversation. And that in itself is reason enough to visit these two pieces of Midwestern Americana.
If you Go
Darwin Twine Ball
Cawker City Twine Ball