Chris Knutsen: Building a Boat
By Jean Cammon Findlay, as part of The Knutsen Archives
Before Chris Knutsen changed his last name from Cammon and built his first guitar, he built a boat.
In May 1886, just before his 24th
birthday, Chris was living with his parents and younger siblings in
Milnor, North Dakota, and advertising in the local weekly, the Sargent
County Teller, as a “Mason, Plasterer, Etc; Cisterns a
specialty.” His work may
have been supporting him, but apparently it wasn’t much of a creative
outlet, for a story in the Teller of Friday, June 4, headlined,
“Milnor’s Pleasure Pond,” 
reported, “Two or three weeks ago Chris and Fred 
Cammon …made a sail boat.” 
A day or two after launching, they invited the Teller
editor for a sail. He
wrote: “Mr. O.F. Cammon
is an old sailor—a Norwegian sailor—and that means a good deal, for
the Norwegians are said to be the best sailors in the world.
The wind was blowing pretty stiffly from the nor’west, and
waves were rolling pretty high, while the surface of the lake was dotted
with duck and other water fowl, and the air was filled with swiftly
flying and screeching gull. The
sails of our magnificent craft were furled as the sailors pushed the
boat from shore, and the American flag that floated from the masthead
never waved freer or more saucily.
When the sailor unfurled the sails and let the breezes fill their
great folds gradually a new life seemed imparted to the craft and it
moved away from shore like a thing of life.
After tacking two or three times to get out of the little bay
into the open waters of the lake we succeeded in reaching the clear
sailing, and enjoyed a splendid ride.
Several times stiff winds caught the sails at just the right
angles and away she sped at terrific speed.”
Obviously the Cammon’s guest had a wonderful
Apparently, the prospect of recreation on the lake
excited further schemes, for another story in the same issue of the
paper said “some of the boys” planned to raise the dam and thus the
water level two or three feet more, making the maximum depth of lake
five or six feet!
Also in the same issue, yet another sidebar
recounted the further adventures of the Cammon’s sailboat.
They lent the boat for an evening sail to four “boys,” the
postmaster, a hardware store clerk, the local reverend, and a fellow who
was best known for his musical talent.
None, we learn, was a sailor of any experience.
The reverend, however, “proved to be a good wader and sinker
[as] his companions can testify.”
At first, all went well.
The boat sailed before the wind beautifully. And then they tried to come home. “The sailor went to tack and Rev. John [M.] went to rise.
The boom was caught by the wind when the rope was loosed and it
swung around like it had been shot out of a cannon.
It struck M. in the neck. The
wind blew a gale. M. was on
the side of the boat that was dipping water.
He went out. The
boat pitched and lunged. The
sailor did not loosen—but rather tightened the ropes.
Down she went and the boys stood up to their necks in water.
Now they blame poor M. for it all.
They say if he hadn’t they shouldn’t and the boat wouldn’t.
The boys waded 200 yards and pulled their boat, filled with
water, after them…There was not a great deal of laughter heard and the
sunny smile the boys wore had faded.”
Spirits could not have been all that dampened.
Two weeks later the Teller of June 18 reported on a
positive flurry of boat building. “Mr.
A. Bjorsell and several other gentlemen of Milnor have built a sail boat
which was placed on the lake south of Milnor about a week ago.
The boat is twenty feet long and about four and half in breadth
with a fifteen-foot main mast. It is capable of carrying 18 persons.” The story goes on to note there were two other boats on the
lake owned by Mr. Cammon and a Mr. Billington.
“Mr. Cammon is now engaged in making another sail boat which is
to be twenty-six feet long and about seven feet wide, in which he
intends putting the brass band and have them play while the huge craft
is being launched.”
There were no follow-ups to these stories, so we are left to wonder if the second Cammon boat ever became a reality and if the brass band got to celebrate that triumphal gig.
1 This is Storm Lake, a shallow lake on the south side of Milnor.
2 Fred must be Chris’s father, Ole Ferdinand Cammon, though according to family lore, his nickname was actually “Ferd.” He is also the person with the know-how and experience to engineer this project. Before coming to America, O.F. (as the editor refers to him in the next paragraph) was already an accomplished carpenter living on the northern shore of the Sogne Fjord when he wasn’t spending part of the of the year as a fisherman in Dverberg, above the Arctic Circle in the Versterålen Islands. Calling Chris’s father Fred can be a little confusing if you know that Chris had an older brother named Ferdinand who actually was called Fred. However, in 1886 he was farming on his own homestead in a nearby township and never had, as far as I can tell, any pretensions to carpentry.
3 I think the editor meant that they either concluded building or launched the boat two or three weeks ago. One doesn’t build a boat in a couple of weeks. There is the matter of acquiring the lumber for the hull and poles for the mast and boom (it’s not as if you can walk into a North Dakota forest—the state tree is reputed to be a telephone pole—and select what is needed), fabric for the sail which they probably had to sew themselves, lines for rigging, a rudder and tiller which they would also have to fabricate, plus time to do the actual construction, which, if it could carry four people, must have been a minimum of twelve feet long. This was at least a winter’s project.
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