Iowa is full of roadside attractions, but Sac City’s World’s Largest Ball of Popcorn is one of my favorites.
History of the World’s Largest Ball of Popcorn
A Legacy of Popcorn
First platted in 1855 by Joshua Keith Powell of Fort Dodge, Iowa, the area now known as Sac City was named after the Sac and Fox Indians, who lived on the land at the time of the Louisiana Purchase. The city was officially incorporated in 1874, and only 14 years later, popcorn was introduced to the county. The area proved to be ideal growing conditions for the tasty treat. Other growers quickly sprouted in Odebolt, Iowa, as well as a handful of other nearby towns. But it was Sac City that quickly became known as the Popcorn Capital of the World. So much so that the Cracker Jack company relied on local farmers to produce its sweet and salty treat.
Today, roughly 2,100 people (and the Noble Popcorn Company) call Sac City home. And after a number of attemps, the small town holds a Guinness Book of World’s Records record. But all of the kernel craziness started 21 years ago when Shirley Phillips, then the economic development director of Sac County, had an idea.
A Sticky Spectacle (April 1995)
As a way to honor the area’s agricultural history and boost local tourism, Phillips had the idea to create a giant ball of popcorn to be displayed at the county fair. So in April of 1995, 35 Sac City residents came together to create the community’s first “world’s largest” ball of popcorn.
Weighing in at 2,225 pounds, the popcorn ball traveled around the state—appearing in countless parades and even a Boy Scout Jamboree. Afterward it returned to the Noble Popcorn plant where visitors would often stop by and request to see it.
“After a couple years, they needed to get rid of it,” Phillips said. Since the ball needed to be edible to qualify for the official world record, the popcorn had started to grow mold.
So once again its organizers concocted a plan. This time they decided to dispose of the ball in just as sticky of a spectacle as when it was created. During the Sac County Fair in August of 1997, organizers loaded the popcorn ball with seven sticks of dynamite and packed a crowd of nearly 2,000 into the grandstand, a safe distance away from any potential popcorn debris.
But when the moment of truth came? It wasn’t quite the exhilarating rain of popcorn Phillips or any of the other organizers had expected.
“They threw the plunger and the inside of the ball was still so sticky that it flew into the air, fell down, and broke apart into chunks,” she said.
A Second Showing (June 2004)
By the time it was destroyed, Sac City’s record had already been topped by Boy Scouts in La Crosse, Wisconsin, who had crafted a 2,377-pound ball.
So in June of 2004, more than 40 volunteers gathered once more at the Noble Popcorn Company. They spent seven hours and 13 minutes constructing a 3,100-pound ball of popcorn that stood at seven feet tall. Like its predecessor, the second ball of popcorn lasted for a few years before being transported to the Sac County Fairgrounds to be used as feed for the animals.
In 2006, an Illinois popcorn factory crafted a 3,423-pound ball, dethroning Sac City as the “world’s largest” title holder once again.
Third Times a Charm? (February 2009)
By February of 2009, the people of Sac City were ready to make another attempt at taking back their record. So on February 28, 2009, more than 253 volunteers spent 12 hours and 40 minutes creating the community’s third World’s Largest Popcorn Ball. When all was said and done, the ball reached a towering eight feet, four inches with a circumference of 28.8 feet. To verify the 5,000-pound behemoth’s weight, the Iowa Department of Transportation brought in scales typically used at truck weigh stations.
Unlike its predecessors, the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball remained on display until spring of 2016. Located in a tiny red shed on the grounds of Sac City’s Museum Village, just across from the Casey’s on Highway 20, the popcorn ball lasted more than seven years, delighting locals and tourists alike. Over the years, excited visitors have taken their wedding photos, posed with their RAGBRAI teams and snapped selfies with the giant ball of popcorn.
In fact, this is the popcorn ball I’d previously visited when we stopped in Sac City a few years ago. While it was hard to get a good look at the ball through the shed’s small plexiglass window, it was impressive to see how the ball held up after its creation.
But, of course, it wasn’t long until Sac City’s record was challenged once again. In 2013, the Indiana State Fair built a 6,510-pound ball of popcorn to celebrate “The Year of Popcorn,” though it was destroyed immediately after its completion.
Still, Sac City was motivated to try one last time to reclaim their world record. So, in April 2016 the city attempted to remove the existing ball.
“As we went to remove it from the building, the guys thought they could just take a chainsaw and cut into it,” Phillips said.
But that didn’t work out as well as they’d planned. After all that time, the giant popcorn ball was still gooey on the inside and eventually needed the fire department’s Jaws of Life to help pull it apart to be carried off to the dump.
“Getting rid of them is just as hard as making them,” Phillips jokes.
Removing the 2009 popcorn ball from its home in the Museum Village. Photo courtesy of the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball on Facebook.
The old shed that once housed the popcorn ball has also been removed to make way for a 20-foot by 20-foot structure, designed specifically to house the new 2016 creation. With windows on all four sides, the new shed will provide an even better viewing experience for passersby. Community members are currently working to raise the $10,000 needed to complete the project.
The Sticky Saga Continues (June 2016)
In June 2016, Phillips, now the Executive Director for Western Iowa Tourism, was called back once again to help reclaim Sac City’s title for (hopefully) the last time.
On Saturday, June 18, Sac City came together to create its fourth World’s Largest Popcorn Ball in the hopes that it will be too big to be challenged ever again. Using a plastic form created by Lundell Plastics as a cradle to support the popcorn during its construction, the completed ball weighs 9,370 pounds and stands at more than eight feet tall. Fun fact: Snappy Popcorn, based in Breda, Iowa, has supplied the kernels for all of Sac City’s giant popcorn balls, since Noble specializes in bagged and flavored popcorn varieties.
The plastic form created by Lundell Plastics to cradle the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball as its created. Photos courtesy of the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball on Facebook.
According to the Des Moines Register, the popcorn ball plan is to mix “2,500 pounds of dried corn syrup, 4,900 pounds of sugar, more than 2,300 pounds of popcorn and just enough lecithin additive so that the 60-gallon batches will stick together yet not clog the popcorn plant’s machinery.” Taking all of those factors into consideration, organizers believe the ball could easily eclipse 10,000 pounds.
In order to qualify for the Guinness Book of World Records, the popcorn ball must be edible and it must be created by hand. After the official record judging, Phillips says organizers are looking into coating the ball in some sort of polyurethane to help preserve it for years to come.
Phillips says people of all ages come from all corners of the state and beyond to participate in the creation of the popcorn projects.
“People just have a ball.” Literally.
Visiting the World’s Largest Ball of Popcorn
The neighboring Sac City Museum and Village is open from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
World’s Largest Ball of Popcorn, 13th and Main Streets in Sac City, Iowa
Share Your Thoughts
I would love to hear from you! Have you visited the World’s Largest Ball of Popcorn? What other “world’s largest” things have you seen?