Cawker City, Kansas
World’s Largest Ball of Twine
One man’s punch line is another man’s Holy Grail (Jesus’ wine cup, not the Monty Python film). The World’s Largest Ball of Twine has long been a comical movie reference, as in National Lampoon’s Vacation (“Perhaps you don’t want to see the second largest ball of twine on the face of the earth, which is only four short hours away?”) and Michael (“I’ll get to see the world’s largest ball of twine.”), but as art often imitates life, such a behemoth actually exists. My pilgrimage took me to Cawker City, Kansas, and I call it a pilgrimage because it’s not easy to get to – you have to really want to see the largest ball of twine in the world. Since I planned to see all the other superlative sites in America’s heartland, I flew into Omaha, Nebraska and rented a car for the drive, ironically four short hours away.
Once you get out of Lincoln, Nebraska, you’re greeted with a relatively flat landscape comprised mostly of farms (corn and sunflowers being the most popular crops). Unlike The Thing on Interstate 10 in Arizona, you aren’t greeted with dozens of billboards leading up to it – you need directions, and they had better be accurate. Prior to my trip, I had called the city offices of Cawker City to get the details (What are the viewing hours? Is there an admission charge? Can I add twine to the ball? Do I need professional help?) and was told that the ball is in an open gazebo in the center of town, viewable 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. As far as whether adding twine was permitted, they gave me the phone number of Linda Clover (the ball’s caretaker) and suggested I contact her. I called and left a message, but didn’t receive a call back, and so I planned to stand in its majesty instead.
As US 24 turns into Wisconsin Street in Cawker City, the excitement starts. The downtown area is about a solid block long, and most of the buildings appeared to be unoccupied. Just past Lake Drive at the end of the block on the left stands a red metal gazebo that I drove past before realizing that this was my destination, the reason for my journey. I banged a yooey (as they say in Boston) and turned onto Lake Drive to park the car. As I parked and took out my camera and tripod, two women approached slowly in a sedan and gradually stopped beside my car. I was preparing for a Midwestern drive-by when the driver leaned out the window and asked, “Would you like to add twine to the ball?”
In any other city in America, this would result in me hopping in the car and speeding away as quickly as possible, but to me it sounded like, “Would you like to add a brick to the Great Wall of China” or “Would you like to help paint the Taj Majal?” It turns out that the driver was Linda Clover herself, and as I fell to the ground and started speaking in tongues, she asked if I was the person that left a message on the phone. She introduced herself as “The Belle of The Ball” and handed me a pre-measured spool of sisal twine, careful to note exactly how much was added. She gave me the details of the ball’s dimensions, but I knew that if everyone who comes to see it “winds twine”, the dimensions are a moving target – just know that it is over 40 feet around and close to 9 tons; unraveled, the twine would reach to Boston.
The ball was started by local farmer Frank Stoeber in 1953, and later donated to the town, which has been overseeing the upkeep and growth of the ball ever since. Linda let me know that the small store across the street sold souvenirs, and so I walked over cautiously, taking care not to be hit by the non-existent traffic. A sign on the door said to ring the upstairs bell if the shop was closed, but the proprietor was behind the counter. She explained to me that in addition to the antiques, she designed and created all the souvenirs (which ranged from “Twine Winder” T-shirts to salt and pepper shakers made to look like the ball). She suggested as long as I was in town I should see the Masterpiece Twine Walk (which consisted of recreations of famous paintings in the largely empty shop windows on both sides of the main block, featuring a twine ball somewhere in the picture). At the end, an empty store front had a diorama set up using bearded female mannequins depicting the legendary card game in which E. H. Cawker and three friends played a game of poker with the winner earning the right to name the town.
I can’t suggest you drop everything and book a trip to Cawker City, Kansas, but if you find yourself in the region it is worth the trip, if for no other reason to be able to say (the next time someone jokes about the world’s largest ball of twine), “Yeah, that’s in Cawker City, Kansas. Been there. Done that. What’s next?”