Entwined Travels

An obscure entry in the Guinness Book of World Records electrified us. We’d visited many Minnesota marvels—Gooseberry Falls, Split Rock Lighthouse, the mighty boat locks on the Mississippi, the Paul Bunyan statue in Brainerd, the 50-foot-tall Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth. But here was a Guinness-honored marvel just a few miles away, a wonder we could drive to see this very weekend.

Barbara and I had argued the details of our getaway weekend—When? Where? What to do?—but the Guinness entry galvanized us —“The World’s Largest Ball of Twine., Darwin, Minnesota.” Darwin was only a two-hour drive away! The huge twine ball fired our imagination—“the largest in the world,” it said—and filled us with burning desire. So instead of the casual May road trip we had planned, we embarked on a pilgrimage to see this twiny wonder that had spread the fame of one man and one tiny town across the world. Would Barbara and I find concord and happiness on this quest?

We decided on a circuitous route that ran west along MN 7. We knew we would face hardships on our mission, so we discounted a few drops of cold rain that bounced off our windshield, but we were alarmed to see the maples and oaks whipping their newly-leaved branches in the 20-knot wind. I wondered how the great ball of twine was faring.

We turned north at Hutchinson (site of Little Crow’s death in 1863) and overnighted in Litchfield where we walked the paths of Anderson arboretum, a little gem perched on the shores of Lake Ripley that boasts flowering crabapples and dozens of different breeds of hostas. Early the next morning (to beat the twine crowds) we took the road again, driving east on US 12. We were now nearing our goal!

We accidentally drove right through Darwin (Pop. 280) and had to do a U-turn. Our excitement rose as we drove back into town. I puzzled that I saw no great billboards, in fact, no twine signs at all. Where were the crowds? Where was the Great Ball of Twine? We turned right at Darwin’s only traffic light, and after a block or two, the concrete street turned into dirt and gravel. Darwin didn’t seem symmetrically laid out—I guess, being Darwin, it must have just evolved.

We re-crossed US 12, and then we spotted the soaring silver water tower with “Darwin” painted in black capital letters on the side. At its base stood a hexagonal building. The Plexiglas windows seemed to glow and pulsate in the sun. My pulse quickened. Could this be it?

We saw not a single soul when we parked along the street in front of a green mailbox that announced, “Pictorials, souvenirs.” Behind, we saw the souvenir shop, but alas, it didn’t open until Memorial Day. My brochure informed me that Darwin celebrates Twine Ball Day the second Saturday in august. What a day that must be! I read the list of treasures one could buy in the shop:

– tee shirts in a variety of colors and sizes
– postcards
– yo-yos
– shot glasses
– miniature ball of twine magnets
– pens
– earrings (metal, not made from twine…but twine ball shaped!)
– mugs, water bottles, cozies
– bumper stickers and keychains
– Frisbees
– playing cards

And (my personal favorite):

– twine ball starter kits

We walked closer to the hexagon building and, finding the door locked (“not open until Memorial Day”), we squinted through the window to see The World’s Largest Ball of Twine. (Was that a security camera I saw under the eaves?) The ball stood majestic, twice my height, entirely wrapped and re-wrapped with thick strands of baling twine.  It was gray-colored, and over the years had developed a sort of potbelly at the bottom. The sign said: “8.7 tons. 40 feet in circumference.”

Nearby was printed the testimony of one Frank A. Johnson: “Well, one day I just wound a piece of twine around two fingers and sort of kept on winding.” Frank, who reported that he worked “four hours a day, every day,” soon graduated from hand-winding to using a forklift, with huge timbers to support the growing ball.

Frank the twine-winder was even more famous than his father Magnus, a U.S. Senator. What motivated Frank to spend almost 30 years (1950-1979) of patient winding? I can imagine Frank’s wife over the years—raising kids, cleaning house, cooking—and constantly asking him, “When’re ya gonna lay up for soybeans? The fields look dry enough” or, “Looks like the corn wants harvesting,” or “The barn sure needs a couple coats of paint.” But because Frank was on a mission—winding, winding, winding—he had trouble focusing on the mundane needs of his family.

Soon Frank became internationally renowned as the man who put Darwin on the map. Then one day in 1979 he stopped winding. Was he satisfied with the ball, or did he just stop?

We lingered, staring through the Plexiglas, trying to photograph the image in our minds. The majestic silence of the gigantic ball spoke for itself. But at last, we had to tear ourselves away.

As we drove home, full of twine memories, Barbara said, “How big it is!”

I said, “Yes, and how old, and well-preserved!”

She said, “How the town treasures it.”

I said, “I can’t believe more people weren’t crowding in for a view through the glass….
But after we left, I could only think of one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“I wish I could have grabbed a loose end of that stupid twine ball, hooked it to our car bumper, and unraveled it all the way back to Minneapolis.”


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