When I compiled my list of Iowa’s “world’s largest” things, I strongly considered highlighting Sac City’s World’s Largest Popcorn Ball. But then I learned that the Iowa version lost its gigantic title to the Indiana State Fair in 2013, and while the reigning “world’s largest” ball no longer exists, I decided to go in a different direction.
That is, until I learned that the people of Sac City were coming together to build a new giant ball of popcorn—bigger than ever before—with the hopes being so colossal that no one will ever try to top it. In anticipation of the city’s next world record attempt on Saturday, June 18, I decided to delve a little deeper into the history of Sac City’s passion for popcorn.
A legacy of popcorn
First platted in 1855 by Joshua Keith Powell of Fort Dodge, Iowa, the area of now known as Sac City was named after the Sac and Fox Indians, who had possession of 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, and other growers quickly sprouted in Odebolt and 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 it’s sweet and salty treat.
Today, roughly 2,100 people (and the Noble Popcorn Company) call Sac City home, and now the small town is poised to make its fourth attempt at Guinness Book of World’s Records notoriety. But all of the kernel craziness started 21 years ago when Shirley Phillips, then the economic development director of Sac County, had an idea.
Creating 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—before returning to the Noble Popcorn plant where visitors would often stop by and request to see it.
“After a couple years, 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 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?
“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.”
Not quite the exhilarating rain of popcorn Phillips or any of the other organizers had expected.
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 and 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.
And 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 time’s the 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 8’4” with a circumference of 28.8 feet. To verify the 5,000-pound behemoth’s weight, the Iowa Department of Transportation even brought in their scales typically used at truck weigh stations.
Unlike it’s predecessors, until earlier this spring the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball remained on display. 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. But before that could happen, the old popcorn ball had to be disposed of. So in late April,
“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 this 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 joked.
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)
Now the Executive Director for Western Iowa Tourism, Phillips is being called back once again to help reclaim Sac City’s title for (hopefully) the last time.
On Saturday, June 18, Sac City will come 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 ball is expected to be about 12 feet in diameter. 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.
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.
Want to witness a world record?
Join the Sac City community Saturday, June 18 beginning at 8 am to help with all of the “packing, punching, molding and shaping” that goes into creating a new World’s Largest Popcorn Ball. The popcorn ball creation will take place outside of Noble Popcorn plant—located at 401 N. 13th Street in Sac City, Iowa—and spectators have been invited to bring lawn chairs and pop-up tents to enjoy the sticky fun.