Small Town Culture Entwined With Giant Roadside Attractions

By Jackson Elliott
Jackson Elliott
Jackson Elliott
Reporter
Jackson Elliott reports on small-town America for The Epoch Times. He learned to write and seek truth at Northwestern University. He believes that the most important actions are small and that as Dostoevsky says, everyone is responsible for everyone and for everything. When he isn’t writing, he enjoys running, reading, and spending time with friends. Contact Jackson by emailing jackson.elliott@epochtimes.us
October 6, 2021 Updated: November 2, 2021

America’s rugged landscape and endless horizons seem to call to the inner pioneer of people who want to see the world’s strangest places.

Somehow, the World’s Biggest Ball of Twine Made by One Man, located in Darwin, Minnesota, also appeals to that exploring spirit.

At roughly 13 feet tall, 40 feet around, and weighing 8.7 tons, the ball of twine resembles an enormous African cornrow. It smells like old, clean straw.

“This is real twine that farmers were using, and they gave it to them,” volunteer guardian Denise Iverson said. “They said when they moved, they thought there would be critters. But it’s so dense. There wasn’t [anything] when they moved.”

Iverson started working at the twine ball in 2019. She’s a devout Catholic with an enthusiastic and grandmotherly vibe.

“Even my friends, they just laugh,” she said. “I think, ‘I don’t care if you laugh. I love this!’”

Epoch Times Photo
Denise Iverson points toward the World’s Biggest Twine Ball Made by One Man in Darwin, Minn., on Sept. 23, 2021. (Jackson Elliott/Epoch Times)

Made by local carpenter Francis Johnson, the “World’s Biggest Twine Ball Made By One Man” is arguably the most famous roadside attraction in the United States. It’s featured in Weird Al Yankovich songs, news articles, and record books.

At least three other Americans have also created giant twine balls, which respectively claim to be largest by weight, largest by width, and largest made from a certain type of twine. Darwin’s is still the largest such ball made by one man.

No other nation can boast even one contender for the title.

Darwin Mayor Josh Johnson said it wouldn’t matter to his town of 320 people if someone beat Francis Johnson’s record.

“To me, there’s probably only two twine balls that have a real claim to it,” he said. “That would be ours, with Francis Johnson being the sole creator, and then Cawker City.”

The United States rules the world of roadside attractions. While the strange attractions of other countries tend to emphasize history, art, or religion, U.S. attractions are different.

Many were created in the past 60 years by individuals working alone. Although some of these attractions serve an advertising or artistic purpose, many don’t and were made just for the sake of breaking records.

Somewhere, some American wanted a giant ball of twine, a Stonehenge made of cars, the world’s largest fork, a painted mountain, the world’s largest ball of paint, a giant blue whale statue, or something else even stranger.

So they built it.

In the words of parody artist Weird Al’s song about the world’s biggest ball of twine: “Kids, this here’s what America’s all about.”

Epoch Times Photo
Jim Mulhearn and his wife Kelly take a selfie next to the World’s Largest Twine Ball Made by One Man in Darwin, Minn., on Sept. 23, 2021. (Jackson Elliott/Epoch Times)

All Roads Lead Through Minnesota

Like all great American stories, the World’s Biggest Twine Ball’s tale began with one determined individual.

Francis Johnson was a bachelor and carpenter, Iverson said. Starting in 1950, he began winding the ball, gathering the twine from local farmers. For 29 years, he worked for four hours each day on his masterpiece, Iverson said. He meticulously knotted and tightened the twine until the ball gained its current shape and solidity.

A nonsmoker, he died in 1989 from emphysema. People wonder if it was caused by him inhaling dust from the twine ball, according to Iverson.

No one ever discovered why he did it.

“My mother taught me not to waste anything,” he once told a Minneapolis Tribune reporter.

But this answer only raises more questions. Why is spending five continuous years of life on a twine ball not, in itself, a waste?

Twine Town

Like almost all persistent hard work, Johnson’s twine ball got results. He’s now Darwin’s most famous son.

The twine ball has forever changed the community, according to Josh Johnson.

“We always say in Darwin, it’s the twine that binds,” the mayor said.

Every street sign in Darwin bears a stylized twine ball next to the street name. The locals celebrate Twine Ball Day with a festival every August. Even the veterans’ memorial has a twine ball carved into its stone.

When an employee from Ripley’s Believe it or Not visited Darwin in an attempt to buy the ball, he received a very hostile response, Iverson said.

“He got so booed out of town that he said he feared for his life,” she said.

Despite all of the local enthusiasm, the twine ball doesn’t bring in big-league tourism for local businesses. At peak season, the Darwin gas station gets about 200 more customers weekly than usual—a 10 percent increase, but still far fewer than the gas station down the road in Litchfield, Minnesota, gets for a normal week.

Darwin has only two restaurants. Trouble’s Restaurant and Bar kitchen manager Adam Monson agreed that the twine ball brings in a few customers. But both restaurants are only open for four hours each day—not long enough to fully benefit from twine-ball tourists.

Most tourists visiting Darwin hear about the twine ball online and stop to see it while on the way to somewhere else. But a few people visit the twine ball as a highlight on their trip.

“There’s a Weird Al song about the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota and I have known of it for many, many years,” said Chicagoan Jim Mulhearn, who visited with his wife Kelly for their anniversary.

For the Mulhearns, the Darwin twine ball was one stop on a cross-country oddity odyssey, which also included a giant ball of twine in Wisconsin and the Mall of America.

Fishing for Customers

Some roadside attractions are simply strange. But others are wacky advertising schemes, designed to bring customers in from the road using wackiness alone.

For the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin, the line is the highway, the fish is the bait, and the travelers are the fish.

Epoch Times Photo
The Giant Muskie statue at the Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wis., on Sept. 20, 2021. (Jackson Elliott/Epoch Times)

In 1978, four years after the museum’s creation, its owners built a 747-sized statue of a freshwater muskie outside of the museum, Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame Executive Director Emmett Brown said. The Big Muskie cost $40,000 to build then—roughly $167,000 today.

The World’s Largest Fish looms over the entire museum. Although trees now obscure view the fish from the road, its lifelike paint job still catches attention.

After visitors pay the museum’s $8.95 admission fee, they can see the Big Muskie up close and climb inside.

The Fishing Hall of Fame displays expertly caught fish, classic boat motors, fishing rods, and far more memorial plaques for anglers than one would expect. Fishing enthusiasts love it, but without the Big Muskie, non-fishermen might find it to be too much hook and not enough bait.

From the memorial-studded garden, several visitors gawked at the giant muskie statue.

“Big Muskie!” one visitor exclaimed when asked why he visited.

Big Muskie, Big Money

Since 1978, the Big Muskie has brought tens of thousands of people into the museum, Brown said. Since its creation, it’s made the museum back its money 100-fold, if not more.

“The return on investment has probably been, I don’t know, 100-fold,” Brown said. “It could be even more than that. I think the fish gets people into the museum initially.

“We have about 50,000 visitors a year. We are definitely the go-to attraction. The bulk of our visitors are from the upper Midwest, but we get people from all over the place, even from Europe.”

Epoch Times Photo
Executive Director Emmett Brown counts money at the Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wis., on Sept. 20, 2021. (Jackson Elliott/Epoch Times)

The giant muskie statue effectively extends the Hall of Fame’s visitor base from big fishing enthusiasts to big fish enthusiasts.

Most visitors to Hayward, Wisconsin, come for fishing tourism, local business owners said. Then, they visit the town’s bars, restaurants, and storefronts.

Local business owners say the Big Muskie sometimes gets people to stop in town for food. But overall, its loss wouldn’t do much to their local economy.

“Hayward has been a destination for many, many years up here,” Angler’s Bar and Grill owner Billie Jo Sabin said. “There’s lots of different things that attract them, whether it’s the fish, the resorts, the restaurants, or the festivals.”

Just like the twine ball in Darwin, the Big Muskie has stamped an identity on the town.

“It’s kind of our icon here,” local resident Marybeth Bates said. “We’re one of the only people that have a fishing hall of fame.”

Bates said the fish is a useful landmark. She often uses it as a reference point when giving driving directions.

Epoch Times Photo
Alan Erdmann photographs Karol Erdmann at Carhenge in Alliance, Neb., on Sept. 22, 2021. (Jackson Elliott/Epoch Times)

Carhenge

In the middle of Nebraska stands one of America’s most successful roadside attractions: Carhenge.

Carhenge is a copy of Stonehenge with a twist. It’s made out of vintage U.S. cars and painted gray.

No one knows how long it took to build Stonehenge, but it took Jim Reinders only a week to build Carhenge with his family. He was a sculptor who liked Stonehenge and classic cars.

Like Darwin’s Ball of Twine, the Big Muskie, and many other roadside monuments, it’s made with a surprising attention to detail.

Like the original Stonehenge, Carhenge frames the summer solstice between its structures. It’s an exact copy of the UK’s most famous stone circle, down to the half-buried cars a few dozen yards away.

Entry is free, and visitors stop by on an almost hourly basis.

“We’ve been here twice already,” said Karol Erdmann, an Iowan visiting while traveling to Denver with her husband, Alan Erdmann. “In the true sense of the word, it’s unique.”

“We’re both car and henge people,” Alan said.

“We’re definitely car people,” Karol said.

The couple spent the night in Alliance because they planned to visit Carhenge, according to Karol.

Epoch Times Photo
Renee Helmsteadt poses while visiting Carhenge in Alliance, Neb., on Sept. 22, 2021. (Jackson Elliott/Epoch Times)

Many visitors said they’ve slightly modified their original road trip plans to pass through Alliance and see Carhenge.

“I’ve been wanting to come here for years. It’s just never been on the route wherever I was going, and I decided to veer off the route this time,” visitor Renee Helmsteadt said. “It’s better than my expectations.”

Standing Cars, Moving Economy

Carhenge is the crown of Alliance. The circle draws 67,000 to 84,000 visitors to the town every year, said Becci Thomas, the director of the Knight Museum & Sandhills Center, located in Alliance. Thomas was previously a member of Friends of Carhenge, a local group dedicated to preserving the car circle.

For Alliance, a town of nearly 8,000 people, this level of tourism brings in huge economic benefits.

“That’s a huge impact if those people only brought bought one soda while they were here,” Thomas said. “That’s a ton of money. Our last tourism director referred to Carhenge as our ‘hook,’ which I totally agree with.”

Some of this effect on business comes from the fact that Alliance is incredibly remote. The nearest town with more than 2,000 people is nearly an hour away. When people visit Carhenge, they often buy food and fuel as well.

“Instead of saying ‘The middle of nowhere,’ our mayor used to say ‘We’re in the middle of everywhere,’ which is much more nice-sounding,” Thomas said.

For local business owners, Carhenge is a cash cow. Local gas station owner Nick Singh said he estimated that Carhenge’s presence boosts his sales by 25 percent to 50 percent.

“It makes a pretty big difference,” he said.

Epoch Times Photo
Gas station owner Nick Singh at work in Alliance, Neb., on Sept. 22, 2021. (Jackson Elliott/Epoch Times)

Restaurants also receive a steady trickle of Carhenge customers. Melanie Mann, the owner of Newberry’s Common Ground café in Alliance, said she estimated that during peak season, two customers visit her restaurant after seeing Carhenge every day.

“It’s a great attraction. It brings people to town,” Mann said.

At first, the locals hated Carhenge, according to Thomas. One woman deliberately had her house built so that her windows faced away from it.

“She’s now dead,” Thomas said. “Carhenge is still there. So that didn’t work well for her.”

The prosperity that Carhenge brought to Alliance made it valuable to the city and to relatively nearby towns. In 2011, Friends of Carhenge, the volunteer association that owned the circle, put it up for sale for a staggering $300,000, Thomas said.

Friends of Carhenge eventually sold the attraction to the Alliance City Government.

“We didn’t want to move it. We didn’t want to lose it,” Thomas said, “because it brings many people in today.”

Epoch Times Photo
After a few hours driving the Great Plains, you begin feeling as though you haven’t got anywhere. The small towns, the road, and the endless sky are the same. Sept. 22, 2021. (Jackson Elliott/Epoch Times)

The Roadside

Perhaps the United States has so many roadside attractions because it has so many roads. Driving them almost allows travelers to understand timelessness.

After a few hours driving the Great Plains, you begin feeling as though you haven’t gotten anywhere. The small towns, the road, and the endless sky are the same.

Only sound still indicates time. So, you listen to music or the radio until it starts to sound the same. Time seems to disappear. People mistake the feeling that follows for boredom, but it’s really restlessness before an unchanging eternity.

When drivers on the Great Plains see a sign for “The World’s Biggest Ball of Twine,” they pull over because they want to be reminded of size and distinction. The Timeless Plains swallow those qualities like the ocean swallows a life raft.

Compared to other countries, The United States has more roads that pass through far fewer populated areas. Among First World countries, only Australia and Canada compare with the United States in low population density and large areas.

Interestingly, these countries both have several strange roadside attractions. Australia has the World’s Largest Sheep and the World’s Largest Pineapple, while Canada boasts the World’s Largest Lobster, the World’s Biggest Axe, and the World’s Biggest Dinosaur.

But these attractions differ from America’s in a crucial way. They celebrate local industries, while Americans often build their attractions without any clear economic reason.

Travelers and Destinations

America’s roadside attractions may be located in many different places, but in one way, they’re all at the same intersection. They stand at the point where one person’s creative desire meets with another person’s urge to discover.

In even the strangest roadside attractions, it’s possible to see the devoted attention of an artist. It seems odd that someone would put so much care into creating a ball of twine or calculating the exact angle at which to bury cars so they could mimic Stonehenge, but Francis Johnson and Jim Reinders did just those things.

It seems equally strange that thousands of people drive countless miles to see these places and others like them.

A cynic might dismiss this peculiar meeting of minds as mere kitsch. And like most tourist activities, roadside attractions do thrive on kitsch. But America’s obsession with roadside attractions also has a deeper meaning.

It reveals a nation always eager to find and also create the world’s most unusual places.

Jackson Elliott
Jackson Elliott reports on small-town America for The Epoch Times. He learned to write and seek truth at Northwestern University. He believes that the most important actions are small and that as Dostoevsky says, everyone is responsible for everyone and for everything. When he isn’t writing, he enjoys running, reading, and spending time with friends. Contact Jackson by emailing jackson.elliott@epochtimes.us