Thursday, July 7, 2011



The door was open but the sound from inside was hollow. Each of us possessed that slight hesitation, a look from one to the other to determine the protocol for entering the building. The interior was only lit by streaks of dusty light, light so thick with floating particles of age-old dust you needed to put a hand over your mouth to keep from breathing it in. The exterior of the building hadn’t been painted in over a century. The copula leaned to three degrees of vertical, surrounded by scaffolding to keep it attached for a while longer until the next big Midwest storm blew through and crumbled it into more floating particles of debris.  I squeaked out a meek, “hello” as both welcome and warning, testing to see if anyone was around. The interior was bare bones, raw wood, the kind you’d find in a local barn. From our vantage point of just outside the threshold we could see scattered around the room a collection of antique trunks, old machinery parts hung as sculpture and some very weatherworn outdoor trellises. A collector’s eye had assembled these pieces. Whoever the owner, you immediately knew you were in the presence of someone who knew how to find beauty where most would have passed it by cataloguing it as junk. This junkman knew art and knew how to mold his junk into treasure.
Outside on the gravel yard in front of the building were two huge balls of old rusted barbed wire, the color of a Kentucky Derby caliber thoroughbred. This had been our clue as to what we might find inside. My “hello” came back to me unclaimed giving us the all clear to roam around, to open old creaking doors and discover back rooms filled with more treasures and collections of transformed ordinary to extraordinary. An old glass case filled with goose eggs, pedestals made from sewing thread spools, the gritty guts of farm machinery taken and mounted on walls, rusted tin signs stacked on end and shelves of vintage pottery washed with layers of crusty dirt played havoc with our desire. Who had collected all this? Was any of it for sale? The desire to grab and run was itching at my fingertips. The itch grew to obsession as I turned and found a set of shelves artfully piled with a dozen or more string balls. Balls of old baling twine, cotton butchers twine and hemp. One of the most ordinary of objects, collected by housewives and farmers, perhaps mercantile owners too tight to let even the most inexpensive of items go to waste.
My first fascination with string balls came at the sight of one we found in an antique store in upstate New York. It’s the kind of object you get or you don’t. The one we found and immediately bought was made out of cotton twine, the kind we used as kids to fly a kite. The ball was about 12 inches in diameter, which totals out to a lot of thread. How many skeins of thread went into making the ball? How many bits and pieces were tied together and wound around its core to make this ball? How many years of colleting did it take to reach that size? Whose history could be traced in the numerous knots and varying lengths of string? It all seemed so ordinary but to us it deserved being put on a pedestal.

The claim of having the largest ball in existence is a currently a three way fight being duked out in the normally uneventful Midwest. In 1950 in a basement in Darwin, Minnesota Francis Johnson picked up his first strand of twine and started rolling. Francis was a little obsessed, kinda like a overly muscled gym rat who can’t stop pumping iron. Francis was spending four hours a day, every day rolling twine in his basement until the ball got too big and he had to move it to his front yard. Francis kept this up for twenty-nine years rolling nine tons of twine. There’s no mention if Francis ever tied the knot. I’m putting my money on the “knot”.
Then in sleepy Cawker City, Kansas Frank Stoeber took up the challenge and started rolling his own ball. He rolled and he rolled. He rolled 1,600,000 feet of twine and almost caught up to Francis but in 1974 a couple of pounds short of Francis’ record Frank died. The town of Cawker City felt really bad so they built an open-air gazebo for Frank’s ball and now anyone can come and touch his ball and tie an inch or two more to its girth. Now, not to be out-rolled, a guy named James Frank Kotera in Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin has been slowly rotating his ball. He’s currently all the way to 19,336 lbs, which by my math skills puts him 1, 336 lbs ahead of Francis and they say James Frank is still rolling. Can’t wait to do a day trip to Lake Nebagamon to see James Frank's ball.

The doors at Haussner’s Restaurant in Baltimore were flung open back in 1926. For 73 years German immigrants William Henry Haussner and his wife Frances Wilke served fine food and a burgeoning collection of art bought at auctions from the Vanderbilts and Morgans and royalty of America. The joy of Haussner’s seemed more in the cultural experience than in the culinary one. The dining room was crowded with important oils hung frame to frame and pedestals with busts of famous and infamous Romans and Greeks, but the place of highest regard, just inside the entry door was given to a ball of string.
They say the ball was tied together over those 73 years by the staff from laundry twine used to package clean tablecloths and napkins. In 1999 the restaurant closed its doors and Sothebys auctioned off all the art including the famous ball of string. After an unexpected bidding war the gavel finally came down on the winning bid of $8250.
The fame of the ball of string grew to where the ball commanded its own billboard, one you can see in the Ben Stiller comedy Meet the Parents. All sting balls possess a certain history, for some its craziness of an obsessed uncle spinning miles of twine as a way of passing time, for a few its cinematic stardom.

At the Penguin Primary School in Australia the students rolled their own string ball. They looked at it as a symbol of how their education and lives would always be connected. Each string represented a student and each knot connected one to the other. They tied in mementos as they built their ball of dyed twine. What they ended up with was part art, part history, and part love story.


Plexus No. 4
Created out of fifty miles of thread
By Gabriel Dawe

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