October 21, 2012

Travel Dispatch: Giant ball of twine has its charm

One in an occasional series of dispatches from two Sacramentans on a minivan voyage around, over and through the country.

One in an occasional series of dispatches from two Sacramentans on a minivan voyage around, over and through the country.

DARWIN, Minn. – A reporter once asked the mountaineer George Mallory why he was striving to climb Mount Everest.

"Because it's there," he replied.

This explains what we are doing in this speck of a farm town 60 miles west of Minneapolis, home to about 350 people of various sizes and shapes. We are here to see the largest ball of twine in the world, at least the largest one assembled by a single individual.

It is an impressive sight, particularly to those of us who impress very easily. It is, according to one of the signs posted nearby, 40 feet in circumference, 11 feet tall, 12 feet nine inches in diameter and weighs about 11 tons. It is housed under a wooden gazebo, nestled in a big cargo net and surrounded by plexiglass, since even twine will suffer at the hands of inquisitive tourists and Minnesota winters. The structure makes it a bit difficult to see the ball, but that's a small price to pay if it will help preserve it for future generations.

This seems a worthy goal, judging by the accolades heaped on the ball in the guest register, which consists of several spiral notebooks in a large blue mailbox: "Wonderful, just great!" – Jessica and Ralph, Norway; "My dad has wanted to come here for 20 years. We finally made it!" – Jenna and Flora Hanna, Brea, Calif.; "Quite an accomplishment." – Frank Pulliman, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

How it came to be here is that a local man named Francis A. Johnson began rolling it in 1950, and kept at it until he died in 1985 at the age of 85. For most of its life, the twine ball sat in Johnson's front yard, and when people visited friends and relatives in Darwin, they would get in the car or pickup truck and go over to Old Man Johnson's house and look at his twine ball, and then maybe go home and toss down a couple of Surlies (that's a beer) and talk about it.

When Johnson, a farmer and carpenter who lived his entire life in Meeker County, died, he willed the ball to the town. The townsfolk moved the ball to its present location, across the street from Darwin's community park. "For in a sense," a placard reads with no apparent deliberate attempt at sarcasm, "the twine ball had put Darwin on the map."

The town also put up a very small twine ball museum, but it was closed when we were there, and no one seemed to know when it might open. There apparently isn't a great deal of demand for further information, or a great deal of information to be imparted anyway.

Just why the twine ball came to be here is a more difficult question. One of the placards suggests that "possibly the most unique part of this is that the twine ball was made entirely by one person, who saw himself to be a self-made man, and he was proud of his accomplishments."

Maybe. Or maybe it's just that we Americans seem to have a fascination with Big Things, Bigger Things and Biggest Things. Those seeking proof need look no further than the fact that while the Darwin ball is recognized as the largest twine assemblage by a single individual, Cawker City, Kan., lays claim to the largest twine ball put together by a community; the heaviest twine ball is supposed to be in Lake Nebagamon, Wis., and the largest plastic twine ball is at the Ripley's Museum in Branson, Mo.

Moreover, in the past few weeks, we've seen:

The world's largest potato crisp, at the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot, Idaho.

The world's largest cement buffalo, at the National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown, N.D.

The world's largest fiberglass cow, high atop a hill outside New Salem, N.D.

The world's largest boot (size 638 1/2) in a shoe store in Red Wing, Minn.

Granted, some of these and other such efforts can be attributed to hope of commercial gain, or whimsy, or just being crazier than an outhouse rat. Still, maybe there is something deeper, nobler or more spiritual in a man that drives him to do what no one else has done, or wanted to do.

"Besides," said Bill, a fellow from Muskogee, Okla., who was on a motorcycle tour with a few friends and had stopped by Darwin to see the ball, "what else would you do with all that twine?"


Where: First Street, Darwin, Minn. Turn left off Highway 12. It's the first twine ball on your left, next to the water tower, across from the park and just down the street from the Blue Moose Pub and Grill.

When: It's outdoors, so you can look at it pretty much whenever you want.

The museum is supposed to be open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the summer, but I'd call ahead, (320) 693-7544,

How much: Free.

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