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String Balls and Butcher’s Paper

Delbert Trew shares a few stories about string balls.

| October 2014

  • Farmer Francis A. Johnson showed off his ball of twine in this photo dating to the late 1950s. The ball measured 40 feet around and weighed 8.7 tons.
    Photo courtesy Wood Press

If you are old enough to remember a twine ball or string ball, usually kept on a pantry shelf, you are probably moving around a bit slow. A recent Alanreed Coffee Shop conversation brought out several stories about string balls.

In the old days before sticky tape, brown paper, paper, and plastic sacks, most purchases at the general store were wrapped in a sheet of white paper and tied in a cross with white string from the store’s counter.

Perishable food was wrapped in butcher’s waxed paper, then in the white paper and tied with string. That kept the food clean, fresh and secure for the trip home, as the purchaser was usually riding in a wagon, buggy or maybe a Model T.

Both my mother and grandmother kept a large ball of twine and a neat stack of white paper on the pantry shelf ready for instant recycling. Our family motto was, “use it up, fix it up and wear it out.” This certainly applied to string and paper.

Each purchase was untied, the string wrapped around the string ball, the paper smoothed and stacked. A square of cardboard was placed on top followed by something heavy to keep the paper flat and unwrinkled.

One “coffee shop slurper,” an old cowboy who’d spent his entire life on area ranches, said one of his former bosses once lost a valuable cow that died from a huge ball of twine collected in her belly. Seems she kept eating the cake sack strings, removed from sacks of cow feed, apparently because they tasted like feed. The rancher insisted the cowboys pick up every string and roll it on a string ball in the cake house. When he finally quit that job, the cowboy said, the ball was the size of a washtub.


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