String Balls and Butcher’s Paper

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Photo courtesy Wood Press
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.

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.

Another man said his family’s first baseballs were made from balls of string wrapped in canvas and sewed by his mother.

One of our early-day barbed wire collectors started a ball of hay baler twine. Seems he leased out his grass and suddenly found abandoned bale twine everywhere. He eventually sold the ball to Ripley’s Believe It or Not and a crane had to be brought in to remove the ball from his farm, load it on a special truck and deliver it to the museum. The ball was over 12 feet tall.

Many an area settler and ranch cowboy rode saddle cinches woven from balls of twine or small mohair cordage. Along with that, many a poor man rode a saddle held on the horse with a gunny sack cinch.

Various types of twine were prized to use in constructing trot lines. If you owned or had access to a fishing hole, you gathered up twine, tied and twisted up a trot line, added hooks, dug a few worms or mixed up a batch of stink bait and went fishing. None of those items cost much and with a little time and patience, you could live and eat like a king. FC

Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164; email:

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