Moses and Aaron Wilcox purchased the town now known as Twinsburg, Ohio, in the early 1800s. According to historical records, the identical twins, who were born on May 11, 1770, in Killingworth, Connecticut, were so alike in “feature, voice and manner” that even their closest friends couldn’t tell them apart. To receive the naming rights to their new plot of land, the Wilcox brothers donated six acres at the center of town for the public square, as well as twenty dollars for the foundation of a schoolhouse. They christened the town Twinsburg in 1819.
The Wilcox brothers were inseparable. They attended the same school, worked as business partners and married sisters, Mabel and Huldah Lord, who were not twins. They each had nine children. In 1827, the Wilcox twins fell ill of the same undocumented disease and died within hours of each other. They were buried in the same grave in Twinsburg.
Although the Wilcox twins left their legacy in Twinsburg’s name, their twindom wasn’t fully celebrated until almost 150 years later. In 1976, America turned 200 and cities around the country planned bicentennial celebrations. Twinsburg, a suburb of Cleveland, turned the event into double the reason to celebrate by dedicating one day of its bicentennial celebration to twins. Thirty-seven sets of twins attended that first celebration.
Over the years, the festival grew from a small, one-day gathering with no organized events into an enormous three-day celebration that now features a parade, talent shows and loads of contests. In 1995, 2,798 sets of twins registered for the festival — the most ever. Since then, attendance has declined, possibly because the growth of the Internet makes it easier for twins to connect with others like them without traveling. But the world’s largest gathering of twins and multiples still attracts around 2,000 sets the first weekend of every August.
Briana Deane came this year for the second time with her twin, Brittany. “We registered in advance because we had dreamed of being part of this for so long,” the twenty-eight-year-old says. “We wanted to be part of a community that understood what twinship was all about, and we’ve found that here.”
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The first event on the Saturday of Twins Days 2014 is the “Double Take” parade, which draws hundreds of spectators. The route is scenic in a suburban way, winding past a drive-thru Starbucks, the library, fire station, high school, middle school and a Lutheran church. Local politicians and small-town celebrities ride in convertibles and wave to the parade-watchers.
Christy and Cheron McKinnie, fraternal twins and first-time festival attendees, don’t know anyone here. Christy traveled from Temple, Texas, and Cheron from Silverdale, Washington. They thought that coming to Twins Days would not only deepen to their relationship, but also allow them to bond with others who understand exactly what it means to be a twin.
“We’ve never made friends with other sets of twins and thought it would be a cool thing for us to do,” says Christy, thirty.
“It can be a little overwhelming because people have been coming here for so many years,” adds Cheron. “But being here is being surrounded by a whole bunch of likeminded people who have this unspoken understanding of what it’s like to be a twin — both the good and the bad.”
Christy and Cheron choose to watch the parade from the sidelines rather than walk the route with the other sets of twins. Christy snaps photos of twins dressed according to this year’s Woodstock-inspired theme — Twinstock. She takes a few of pre-teen twins in Barbie doll outfits. She snaps two men wearing JFK masks as they escort two Marilyn Monroes in platinum blonde wigs. She takes a photo of toddlers wearing John Lennon sunglasses and black ties, who hold up limp peace signs as their parents pull them in a wagon decorated to look like a yellow submarine.
The ninety-minute parade ends and the procession leads directly to the festival grounds. People stop to stick pushpins into their native countries on a world map. Red pins spring up all over the U.S., but also in Australia, Brazil and Japan.
So many multiples in one place also benefits the scientists who attend Twins Days, as the event has long been a destination for researchers who conduct twin studies.
Christy and Cheron McKinnie explore the research tents after the parade. Scientists wear lanyards and stand a few paces outside of their booths, clipboards poised in front of their chests, looking like eager football coaches evaluating new recruits.
A researcher invites the McKinnies into a tent and asks them each to fill out a questionnaire. The first five questions require respondents to check a yes/no box. 1. I’ve never had a chance to figure out who I am apart from my twin. Both Christy and Cheron check no. Their answers are the same for every question, all of which confirm that they have no problem letting each other know when they need more space, have separate opinions, and do not feel competitive with each other.
The McKinnies have participated in research studies before. Cheron says they used to fill out surveys when they were in college. “It doesn’t make me feel weird when we do the studies,” she says. “What gets me is when people stare at us or ask me if I would feel pain if they pinch Christy. We still get asked that when we’re together.”
Most twins get similar treatment. “Being a twin affects so many parts of life. Not just the way people see you, but your relationships with other people, transitioning to adulthood and, eventually, death,” Briana Deane says. “It adds another element to finding your identity.”
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Identity, both shared and individual, is on everyone’s mind at Twins Days. The festival attracts siblings who feel that being a twin is central to who they are. Most seem to enjoy dressing in matching outfits, no matter how old they are. Not only does dressing up make multiples feel as though they’re attending a giant theme party, it also allows them to satirize the matching clothes many of their parents dressed them in as children.
Although they’re fraternal twins, the McKinnies look almost identical. They have the same haircut, a shoulder-length bob. They are both exactly five feet tall. Cheron answers questions for both of them; Christy doesn’t seem to mind her sister taking the lead.
They walk down a sloped gravel path to a big white tent, where the contests will be taking place.
“Who is here for the first time?” asks the emcee.
Christy and Cheron raise their hands in unison. The tent resounds with whoops and woos, but becomes even louder when the announcer asks who has returned to the festival.
During each of the fifty-two contests, three volunteer judges instruct twins to file onto the bleachers. The judges, checklists in hand, ask them to face front and then to turn to the side, not unlike posing for a mug shot. Twins in first through third place receive medals, and every participant receives a white ribbon.
The McKinnies first compete in the “Furthest Distance from within the U.S.” contest. Two sets of twins from California take third and second. Then the announcer calls set number “818.” The McKinnies win, and shiny gold medals are placed around their necks.
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There are certain ways to stand out at Twins Days — medals, costumes — but the easiest is being a multiple who isn’t a twin. Later in the afternoon, the judges introduce three sets of quadruplets to the audience. They are all women, the oldest in their mid-fifties, the youngest are not even ten.
“Here they are, three sets of quadruplets all in the same place,” the announcer says. “Take a picture now. You don’t know when you’re going to see this again,” Parents and twins readily crowd the stage, cameras at the ready. Under the big white tent, the quadruplets are spectacles.
Per Twins Days rules, everyone must ask permission before taking photos of multiples. Most of the time, the attention is welcome, but the rule is a reminder that just being a twin still confers a reason for people to stare and take a photo.
For most twins, the festival is a place of acceptance and understanding. “It’s the excitement of celebrating your personal twinship with your twin and, at the same time, you’re celebrating the phenomenon of being a twin,” Briana Deane says. “Life is so busy, you never really take that day to think about what being a twin means. It’s like celebrating your twin birthday with all of these twins who are celebrating their twin birthdays.”
Mike and Matt Gragnani, twenty-five, have been coming to Twins Days since they were infants. In fact, this is their twenty-fifth festival in twenty-five years. To celebrate, they applied to be on this year’s royal court.
In their 500-word essay, they wrote: “The first full weekend of August has become more than just a weekend trip every year with our family. It has become a true bonding experience. It’s a pilgrimage that we will continue to make together for many years to come.”
Attending once is enough to hook some twins, who then vow never to miss another festival. Mike says, “Whenever we find out someone is here for the first time, we always ask them, ‘What took you so long?’”
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At 5:25 p.m., it’s time for Contest #46, “Most Alike Females Ages 29 – 35.”
Twenty-eight women walk single-file onto the stage. For the next fifteen minutes, they stand on three rows of bleachers. When prompted by the judges, they face forward. Then they turn to the right. Then the left. Then, they face each other, a mirror reflection of themselves. No one talks. The judges call three numbers, and six sets of twins come forward to receive medals.
Christy and Cheron are not among the chosen. On the surface, the winners are impossible to tell apart.
On Sunday, Christy and Cheron wander around the festival grounds, this time feeling more confident. They don’t need to look at the map to know where to go. They have one destination in mind — the contest tent. They’re ready to try the “most alike” contest — which takes place for a second time today— again. They face front. Then right. Then left. Then toward each other. Then they wait. And wait.
“Will 818 please stay on stage?”
They win a third-place medal, the third most alike females, ages 29 – 35.
The medals are conversation starters for the McKinnies, who talk to other twins as they wait in line for free macaroni-and-cheese samples from a food truck. During the last day of the festival, they don’t stand on the sidelines of events, but instead make small talk with the other twins whom they came to meet. As the festival draws to a close, the McKinnies have learned that whether twins come to compete in contests or not, they all have a common purpose for attending Twins Days — to feel less alone.
On Sunday evening, Christy and Cheron go to dinner at a Longhorn Steakhouse near their hotel with another set of twins who live about an hour from Christy. Even though they’re eating in Twinsburg, the immunity Twins Days provided them has worn off. The servers can’t help but stare at the two sets of twins eating together at one table as they make plans to come to Twins Days next year.
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Allison Pohle is not a twin, but she is a freelance writer currently based in NYC. You can follow her on Twitter @AllisonPohle.
Elizabeth Renstrom is a photographer and photo editor based in Brooklyn who is obsessed with The Fifth Element and Lisa Frank. She has worked for Time magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, VICE, and Marie Claire.