There’s a common misconception that the multi-Grammy Award winning Weird Al Yankovic only performs parody songs. For those of us who’ve been buying his records/cassettes/CD’s for nearly four decades, however, we know full well that some of his funniest stuff is completely his own. These Al-riginals include “Dare to be Stupid,” “This is the Life,” “One more Minute,” and my favorite of them all, “Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota.” It was included on his UHF (1989) soundtrack and revolves around a family road trip to a rather unique roadside attraction. These folks have a penchant for pickled wieners and visiting as many bizarre places in the United States they can find with the Twine Ball their clear favorite. Most of the locales mentioned in the song are real places and I had the opportunity to visit the “Mecca of albino squirrels” (Olney, Illinois) last November.
The same can be said for the hallowed Twine Ball. Weird Al was inspired to cover this place after reading about it in “Roadside America” and, so far as we Daves are concerned, he’s not only one of our favorite artists but also the ideal travel agent!
The Twine Ball can be found in the rural town of Darwin, Minnesota which I found pretty hilarious in and of itself. My family and I were just finishing up our own wacky road trip (minus the pickled wieners) and amidst a fifteen-hour drive back to Chicago from Bismarck, North Dakota. The Twine Ball served as a fun halfway point and an opportunity to stretch our legs. After passing numerous corn fields we entered Darwin around noon and noticed they even featured the Twine Ball in their welcome sign.
As we neared our quarry, I started playing the Weird Al song on my Mp3 player, timed to end just as our GPS had us arriving. It was easy to find and we pulled into a parking area across the street. Just like the song, the Twine Ball was indeed “under a makeshift pagoda” and where we could see it from our car. Unlike the song, however, this dad did not fall to knees and cry and cry but laughed his ass off instead. In fact, my eldest daughter, Leia, and I laughed so hard we could barely get out of the car. I guess seeing it brought home the sheer ridiculousness of it all and I held my sides and chuckled all the way across the street.
Though I knew the Twine Ball was an actual thing, I didn’t know the “Twine Ball Inn” and “Twine Ball Museum” mentioned in the song was real as well. I looked up and, low and behold, there they were…inciting yet another round of belly laughs. In fact, I don’t know how anyone can visit this place and keep a straight face!
After regaining composure, I entered the museum and gift shop. We were greeted by a friendly, elderly woman who happily gave us a brief history and tour. The ball was created by Francis A. Johnson whom she described as “an eccentric genius.”
She would end up using the word “genius” to describe him many times throughout our visit and it was clear that while I found the whole thing hilarious, the Twine Ball was no joke in Darwin. It certainly wasn’t to Johnson who began rolling that twine in 1950 and didn’t stop until twenty-nine years and 9 tons of twine later! I should mention that there is another, possibly larger twine ball in Kansas but our guide was quick to point out that while that one was created by multiple people, Darwin’s is the largest created by ONE man.
I had to ask her about Weird Al and she lit up. I got the impression that next to Mr. Johnson, Yankovic was the second most loved man in this town and they dedicated an entire wall of photos from the day he came to visit.
“He sent us Christmas cards and stayed in touch for a good ten years after that,” she said. “Then, after he got married and moved, we sort of lost touch.” While the man himself may have gone missing, his fans continue to make the Twine Ball pilgrimage and this small community couldn’t be happier about it. Though we may find it funny it was clear they had nothing but pride for both the Twine Ball and its creator.
Johnson created some other notable items, also featured at the museum. One of these showed a giant hand carved pair of pliers that unfolded into numerous mini-pliers. It was unusual but made me realize he may have been deserving of that “genius” moniker after all.
The museum, itself, is less a tribute to the Twine Ball as it is the town itself. It showed different items from the farming community’s past and, in some ways, I envied this glimpse of a simpler life.
I have to admit when you take a close look at the ball itself, it is pretty impressive and I can’t believe some guy spent nearly thirty years rolling that thing into existence. The glass surrounding the ball creates quite a glare but they’re willing to open the door for you and let you peek inside.
The gift shop had lots of great shirts and items (my favorite was a pair of twine ball earrings) including a post card that said “Greetings from the Twine Ball” like in the song. One thing you should know if you’re planning to visit, they take cash ONLY. They do point visitors to an ATM at a gas station down the street if need be but, later that day when we stopped there to fill up, I noticed it was “Out of Order.”
I picked up a couple souvenirs for me and the other Terror Dave before making the rest of our epic journey home. It had been a fun week but reality was waiting for us and I had to go grocery shopping, do laundry, and get the kids registered for school the next day. Then it would be time for me to go back to work and the daily grind. It was a depressing thought, thinking about the twenty years I have till retirement. Or, if I was Francis Johnson, at least six more tons of twine to go!