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Johnson’s legacy lives on in twine ball documentary
AUG. 19, 2013

By Kristen Miller
News Editor

DARWIN, MN – Just in time for this year’s annual Twine Ball Celebration, father/daughter filmmakers KC and Bryan Duggan completed a documentary based on the 8.7-ton world-renowned attraction.

The hour-and-18-minute-long documentary highlights the motivation behind Francis Johnson, the creator of the original largest ball of twine, and the two other balls of twine that have competed for the same notoriety.

As the story of the balls of twine unfolds, the documentary also portrays the grass roots values of conservation, patience, and perseverance and America’s obsession with “bigger is better,” Bryan explained.

The project began 10 years prior with KC and Bryan taking a road trip across the country, from California to New York where KC was a film student at Syracuse University.

On that trip, she wanted to catch some of the famous road-side attractions along the way, including the Grand Canyon and the largest ball of twine in Cawker City, MO. (Note: this was considered the largest ball of twine made by many).

As a film major, KC decided to create a film based on the largest ball of twine, and began doing some research.

The following year, she took a trip to Darwin to see the largest ball of twine made by one man during the town’s celebration in August.

There, she began interviewing the townspeople (who are featured in the video) and the nephew of the creator, Harlan Johnson.

With a father in the filmmaking industry, KC got Bryan on board for what he thought would be a 10-minute documentary.

But, “Like the twine ball, it became a little bit of an obsession, and it just kept growing,” Bryan commented.

The documentary begins with an interview of two men from France, who made a special trip to Minnesota just to see what they called a “very famous monument.”

“No Frenchman would have an idea to make it,” the one man said.

Roger Werner, longtime curator of the Twine Ball Museum, is also featured throughout the video.

In it, he commented, “The fascination of its bigness is really amazing – if it was half the size, nobody would look at it.”

Also featured in the video is Ripley’s Believe It or Not Vice President of Exhibits and Archives Edward Meyer, who has long been intrigued by the work of Francis Johnson.

“In the world of weird, this is about as good as it gets,” Meyer said of the Darwin twine ball. He admired the ball of twine so much he made an offer to the Darwin Community Club in 1990, to have it moved to the Ripley’s museum. He was met by towns folk sporting their twine ball attire and stone-cold faces.

He quickly found that money wasn’t an issue, but the ball, however, was a part of the town and that “it was the string that tied the town together.”

The documentary goes on to tell the story of Francis Johnson and what led him to spend up to six hours a day rolling twine that he acquired throughout the years.

“My mother told me never to waste anything,” Johnson said.

The film goes on to explain that mentality was likely started during the Depression era, when everything was seen as a value.

Johnson started rolling the twine between his two fingers starting in 1950. It eventually grew to where he needed to remove it from his basement while it could still fit through a 30-inch door.

Eventually the ball grew to 6,800 pounds and, in 1958, the ball landed Johnson a trip to New York, where he and the ball were featured on CBS’s television show, “I’ve Got a Secret.”

That, however, was only the beginning of the notoriety Johnson and the ball of twine would receive as it would eventually land in the Guinness Book of World Records.

For Johnson, however, it wasn’t about being famous. He was characterized by those who knew him as a bit “eccentric.”

He also happened to be a bachelor, allowing him to have more time on his hands. The ball, which has been moved to his front lawn directly on Highway 12 east of Darwin, brought him many visitors, which he enjoyed.

The film goes on to feature the other two large balls of twine.

In Cawker City, MO, Frank Stoeber began rolling a ball of twine with donated twine he received from farmers just three years after Johnson began his ball of twine.

The two eventually found out about each other. Stoeber even paid Johnson a visit during which he was said to have told Johnson he would roll an even bigger ball.

Johnson took a lot of pride in his ball of twine and how round it was, and he was likely not too concerned with the challenge.

In 1968, Stoeber did catch up to Johnson for a tie, though he died in 1974.

Francis continued rolling and kept the record going for 24 years in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Eventually, Johnson could no longer continue, which he felt bad about, and the people of Cawker City continued where Stoeber left off.

Because the ball in Cawker wasn’t made by one man and instead, used new twine as opposed to old farm twine, Ripley’s Meyer never felt it was as good as Johnson’s. “It wasn’t one man’s endeavor,” he said.

Later on, JC Payne of Valley View, TX made it his goal to surpass both of the largest balls of twine, beating the record.

The balls weren’t a fair comparison, however, since Payne, used multi-colored nylon and a mechanized wand to roll it.

More on the film

The film was completed at 1:30 a.m. a week before the Twine Ball Celebration Aug. 10, Bryan said. It was their goal to have it preview during the festival. “We just thought that was appropriate,” Bryan said.

As the story unraveled, the Bryan said he found it to be an intriguing story.

Being from LA, the father-daughter duo also found the story of small-town camaraderie and pride to be one to share with others.

“Farming communities have a whole different character,” Bryan commented, adding that they are unique and refreshing.

“We were drawn in by the whole story,” he said.

Werner was impressed by the film. “I thought they did a great job,” he said.

The film was also seen by Johnson’s nephew, Harlan, who suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease. During the movie, his reactions showed his memories were there, however, particularly when his late wife appeared in an interview.

Currently, the directors are working on premier showing at a local theatre, though the details are yet to be determined.

The video can be pre-ordered by contacting the Duggans via e-mail: thetwinemovie@gmail.com.

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