Iowa’s Got (Popcorn) Balls 

When Shirley Phillips began brainstorming ideas for a roadside attraction in the mid-1990s, she had no idea it would spark a decades-long rivalry between Midwestern states. She just wanted an attraction that would honor Sac County and Iowa’s rich history in the popcorn industry. 

She landed on the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball. Not finding any records on file for such a thing, she went straight to the source. Phillips phoned the Guinness World Records headquarters in New York to inquire about the idea — and had to explain to the Guinness staff what a popcorn ball was. 

“We actually shipped a box of popcorn balls to New York for them,” Phillips said. 

Once the Guinness World Records staff knew what a popcorn ball was, they loved the idea. The “World’s Largest Popcorn Ball” would be added to the World Records books — all Phillips had to do was put together a team to create it. 

What she didn’t know at the time was that she’d accidentally created a sticky, salty arms race. 

A Dynamite Showing

When Phillips brought the popcorn ball idea to the then-owner of the Sac City-based Noble Popcorn, Milo Lines, he thought she was crazy. But when Phillips has an idea, she makes it happen. 

“When Shirley comes knocking…one time we were even thinking about locking the front door,” Lines joked. 

Lines’ hesitations were justified. He was relatively new to the popcorn business, having only purchased Noble Popcorn in 1985 to keep the struggling business locally owned. A pharmacist by trade who owned the town’s drugstore — and who also served as the mayor for a period of time — Lines came into the popcorn business with little to no background knowledge of the snack. 

“I was like, ‘Dad, what do you do with a popcorn plant? You don’t know popcorn, you know drugs,’” Rhonda Lines recalled saying upon learning of her father’s business purchase. “He said, ‘Well, you gotta learn.’”

And learn he did. Just about a decade after he purchased the plant, Lines was preparing for his biggest challenge yet: constructing the world’s largest popcorn ball. 

The Lines family woke early one morning in April of 1995 to pop the popcorn and prepare the large vats of sticky syrup as volunteers from across Sac County gathered at Noble Popcorn to build the ball. By the day’s end, Sac City, Iowa, was home to a mammoth 2,225-pound popcorn sphere and claimed the Guinness World Record for creating the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball. 

“It wasn’t just Sac City people,” said Shelly Crump, Lines’ other daughter. “It was the whole county, and a lot of people came from other states who used to live here…Grandkids would stay with their grandparents and help build it for a couple hours…it was sticky fun, that was what we promoted.” 

Sadly, Sac City’s record didn’t last long. Later that year, a group of Boy Scouts from Wisconsin created a larger popcorn ball, narrowly beating Sac City’s new record by 152 pounds. 

In the aftermath, Sac City had a unique problem: how to dispose of thousands of pounds of syrup-laden popcorn.

Their answer: blow it up. 

The popcorn ball was hauled to the Sac County Fair in August 1997. A demolition expert drilled holes in the behemoth, then loaded in seven sticks of dynamite. Excited fans packed the stands, ready to catch pieces of the “rain of popcorn” after the explosion. The national media was even there to film it.

The dynamite, though, was no match against the sticky popcorn ball. It broke into several chunks rather than making it rain. 

Rhonda, who was living in Omaha, Nebraska at the time, heard about the whole affair on her local news station. Despite the lackluster explosion, the event also made the national news and was even mentioned on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

Picture of the World's Largest Popcorn Ball building
The most recent World’s Largest Popcorn Ball has graced Main Street in Sac City, Iowa, since its creation in 2016.

Bring In The Payloader

For seven years, Sac City was ball-less. The Boy Scouts had the record. But the town was plotting. In June of 2004, Sac City made another run at the record. In seven hours, the community built a record-breaking 3,100-pound popcorn ball.

But then, Illinois swooped in to steal the title.  

“Never one to back down from a challenge, plans were soon hatched to create another record holder,” Phillips wrote in a 2009 news release. “Large enough that no one will dare to challenge the record again.”

With the aid of forklifts and a county payloader, the crumbling former record-holder was again moved to the county fairgrounds. This ball didn’t get the dynamite treatment, though. Instead, it was fed to the animals. 

Then, on Feb. 28, 2009, hundreds of volunteers and community members marveled at the third iteration of the popcorn ball. It stood 8 feet 4 inches tall with a circumference of 28.8 feet. Scales were brought in from the Iowa Department of Transportation to confirm its weight: 5,000 pounds. County payloaders were used to move the immense ball to its final home in a protective shed on Main Street. 

“It was a little scary,” Rhonda said. “I was watching for a while and I said, ‘You know what, I’m gonna go back to my office because I can’t handle this.’ They moved very slowly. It was like a nice little dance, everybody moved at the same time.”

Sac City had four years as ball king, until the Indiana State Fair claimed the title of the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball in 2013, constructing a 6,510-pound ball. Bastards. 

Sac City Strikes Back

Phillips would not be outdone. She began the logistical planning for an even loftier goal: an 8,000-pound ball. But this wasn’t going to be like building the other balls. It was too massive, too heavy, to just be put together by grandparents and kids mashing wads of sticky popcorn together. This would take technology. 

Bearing in mind the difficulty of molding several tons of popcorn, Phillips approached Lundell Plastics in Odebolt, Iowa, to create a special mold to shape the ball from the bottom up. Since traditional wood pallets are not equipped to bear such a weight load, Evapco Inc. of Lake View, Iowa, was recruited to build a customized pallet to hold the popcorn ball and mold. 

At 6:48 a.m. on June 18, 2016, the first load of popcorn was dumped into the bowl-like mold. On a hot and already sticky day, hundreds of volunteers gathered to help, with even more coming to watch. Children and adults alike laughed as they climbed a ladder and jumped down into the mold to help compress the popcorn ball. The final load of popcorn was added to the mold at 11:57 p.m.

“These kids would just jump in. And that’s basically another avenue of what we wanted to do…make it a community fun thing,” Rhonda said. “So I was very happy…that the kids did get involved. It was nice to see them.”

The final popcorn ball surpassed all expectations, clocking in at 9,370 pounds on the Iowa Department of Transportation scale. A protective white shed with bulletproof glass was constructed next to the Sac City Museum, where the nearly five-ton popcorn ball still rests today.

Popcorn Pride

While the 2016 popcorn ball was not officially recognized by Guinness World Records because the entry must now be eaten, the unofficial World’s Largest Popcorn Ball still holds a sense of pride for the community of Sac City. 

Phillips, now the executive director of Western Iowa Tourism, got her wish. Tourism in Sac City has grown in the decades since the creation of the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball. Visitors have come from all 50 states and as far away as Australia, New Zealand, Peru, Afghanistan and China to see their giant ball. 

“We have what we call ‘living large’ in western Iowa because we have the popcorn ball.  We have the big bull Albert down in Audubon. We have the biggest coffee pot. We have the ice cream cones up in Le Mars,” Phillips said. 

Though the Lines family sold Noble Popcorn — now Cedar Creek Popcorn — in 2022, the community partnerships didn’t end. Cedar Creek management takes pride in the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball. They’re ready to step in and reclaim the title if another pretender to the throne makes attempts to usurp Sac City’s supremacy. 

“They’re all about if somebody beats us, or if we want a new popcorn ball, they’re really excited,” Rhonda said. 

So Boy Scouts: don’t even try it. 

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