State

Cawker City wins the ball game with massive sphere of twine

In 2003, Lottie Herod of Cawker City, left, tried to reach the top of the “World’s Largest Ball of Twine” with Linda Clover, the “keeper of the twine.” Cawker City was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the quirky Kansas attraction.
In 2003, Lottie Herod of Cawker City, left, tried to reach the top of the “World’s Largest Ball of Twine” with Linda Clover, the “keeper of the twine.” Cawker City was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the quirky Kansas attraction. File photo

Cawker City’s massive ball of twine is unashamedly one of the quirkier tourism sites in Kansas.

It rates right up there with other Kansas must-sees: S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden in Lucas and M.T. Liggett’s political sculptures in Mullinville.

But last month, Cawker City’s ball of twine made national news. The Atlantic magazine sent a team in August to measure and evaluate the four balls of twine in the United States that claim to be the world’s largest ball of twine.

There’s the Darwin, Minn., ball of twine that was started in 1950 by farmer Francis Johnson. It is, technically speaking, the world’s largest ball of twine made by one man. It’s enclosed in Plexiglass and is not available for the public to touch.

Then there is a nylon ball of twine made by Texan J.C. Payne on display at the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum in Branson, Mo. Please note: It is a nylon ball of twine – not the original sisal ball of twine that Kansans use. It was declared the world’s largest in 1994 by Guinness World Records.

And then there is the multicolored ball of twine started in 1979 by James Frank Kotera in Nebagamon, Wis., that is still growing.

Each claim their distinctions, the Atlantic reported.

“As a set, they average more than 17,000 pounds, the equivalent of more than three large SUV’s stacked one upon the other,” the Atlantic’s article by Tim Hwang reported on Sept. 9. “The average ball is more than 36 feet in circumference, with the tallest in the set towering at a staggering 11 feet in height.”

Growing a twine ball

Is Cawker City’s ball of twine the world’s largest?

According to the Atlantic, the twine ball measures 41.42 feet in circumference, 8.06 feet in diameter and 10.83 feet in height – and it’s growing.

The Atlantic declared the Cawker City ball the winner, writing “after all the controversy, what these measurements indicate is that the slow but continuous work of the community in Cawker City may have finally allowed it to achieve supremacy.”

The sisal ball of twine – built with a farmer’s make-do-save-it-if-you-can-use-it-later-for-something-else mentality – certainly is among the most famous.

Linda Clover, the matriarch of the Cawker City ball of twine, said she estimates the Kansas twine ball to be nearly 20,000 pounds, give or take 30 to 40 pounds. And people may touch it and are encouraged to add to the ball’s girth – all for free.

For the record, she was called by the Wall Street Journal “The Belle of the Ball” when that newspaper did a story on the famous Kansas twine ball in January 2010.

The Cawker City ball is a tourist destination site, she said. An open-sided shed surrounds the twine, helping to preserve it from the Kansas elements.

“I let people add twine just about every day,” Clover said. “I have twine in the car and the pickup truck. If I see people there, I go up and ask them if they’d like to add twine.

“I just let people walk around one time,” she said. “And I walk behind to pull it tight.”

The Mitchell County town in north-central Kansas near the Nebraska state line has about 400 residents.

At one time – in the 1880s – it boasted 2,000 residents and had a mill, banks, churches and an opera house and city auditorium.

But like many rural towns in Kansas, Cawker City eventually declined in population as younger generations left for jobs in larger cities and sometimes other states. In 1960, passenger trains stopped coming. Construction of the nearby Glen Elder Lake took not only farmland but people away from the community.

In 1953, Cawker City farmer Frank Stoeber began slowly knotting his way to fame. Like many farmers, Stoeber had a hay baler that used sisal twine. Once those bales were used to feed livestock, he had plenty of twine left over.

He began wrapping the used twine into a ball that grew larger each day.

In 1961, when Kansas observed its centennial and hundreds of communities hosted celebrations, Stoeber brought his ball of twine to town and left it.

The Cawker City twine ball has been noted in at least three Hollywood movies: “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Beethoven’s Third” and “Michael.”

It has been featured as a question on the TV quiz show, “Jeopardy” and has been listed as one of the top 10 places people should have on their bucket list of things to see by Destination America TV channel. The ball of twine placed ninth, right above Big Sal’s Restaurant in San Diego and right below spending the night at Lizzie Borden’s Bed and Breakfast and touring the Grand Canyon by donkey.

Clover said that nearly every week 2 to 3 more pounds of twine are added to the great ball, depending on the weather and how many people drop by to see the ball.

She estimates 10,000 to 15,000 people a year stop at the ball and take selfies or group pictures. They hold up cameras and cellphones to snap photos.

Visitors may also see paintings on local store fronts that Cher Heller Olson did about a decade ago depicting the ball of twine in takeoffs of masterpieces such as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” clasping a ball of twine and Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Can” turned into “Campbell’s Twine Soup.”

Local residents aren’t nearly as excited about the twine.

“Most people tell me they can’t see why people get so excited about it – yet, when they go out of town, they are proud to tell people and get excited when people know about it,” Clover said.

For at least half a century, the Kansas ball of twine has been a quirky, goofy claim to fame.

“We get a lot of jokes,” said Richard Smalley, marketing manager of the state’s Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

“We promote quirky stuff. I have a self-shot of me at the Cawker City ball of twine,” Smalley said. “It is fun to just say you have been there.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

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