Chris Knutsen: Years of Decision

by Jean Cammon Findlay, as part of The Knutsen Archives

 Chapter 4. Mason to Manufacturer

The ad in the Sargent County Teller, Milnor, Dakota Territory, June 11, 1886, declares:

Chris Cammon,

Mason, Plasterer, Etc.

All work warranted to be done in first-class style.

Cisterns a Specialty

Milnor, Dak.

 Then under it, separated by an ad for harnesses, saddles, collars, and whips, is this:

Plasterer and Mason!

O.F. Cammon,

Milnor, Dakota

I am prepared to do plastering and all kinds of mason work in the best possible manner.  Kalsoming a specialty.[1]

I can build splendid cisterns and warrant them to give satisfaction.

Given the juxtaposition of these two ads, I have no doubt that Chris learned masonry skills from his father.  These skills were perhaps further augmented during Chris’s brief incarceration in the Minnesota State Prison for “breaking and entering” in 1882 (see Chapter 1: A "Miserable Scamp").  All prisoners had to work, and one choice among the various assignments was the shop that used painters, carpenters, and plumbers to keep the prison in good repair.  Here, at age 20, Chris had ample opportunity in the aging prison buildings to hone his skills in carpentry, masonry and plumbing (cisterns a specialty).  By 1886 when the above ads appeared, Chris was evidently skilled enough to be in business on his own – and in competition with his father, Ole Ferdinand Cammon.

The above ad in 1886 is the first that I know of for Chris’s masonry work.  The last such mention I can find was for plastering and chimney work in June 1895 in the Dawson (Minnesota) Sentinel.  Chris’s — now Chris Knutsen — uncle/father-in-law, Anton Cammen, died in Dawson that same month and Chris and his family returned to Port Townsend, Washington, where they had lived at the end of the 1880's.  In July 1896 Chris filed his first patent for his “Celebrated One-Arm Harp Guitar” (see Patents).

Chris’s woodworking skills can only be established by inference.  His father, Ole Ferdinand, two uncles, Anton and Hans, one great-uncle, Aslak Lie, and two brothers, Frank and Eddie, had carpentry skills.  In fact, Chris’s father and Uncle Anton were identified as “snikkars” (cabinet-makers – very high quality carpenters) in Norwegian records.

Chris Knutsen’s mother, Bergitta Cammon stands on the porch of the family home in Milnor, North Dakota about 1900.  Note the intricate Carpenter’s Gothic ornamentation along the eaves and in the corners believed to be the handiwork of Chris’s father, Ole Ferdinand Cammon.

(photo courtesy of Linda Cameron, Chris's great-great niece)

One of Ole Ferdinand’s projects documented by the Sargent County Teller was the building of a new schoolhouse in Milnor in 1894 (he submitted the lowest bid of $395).  However, by the 1890's, a large part of Ole Ferdinand’s business was not carpentry per se but house moving.  For example, in partnership with Frank, one of Chris’s younger brothers, he moved a mill six miles from its country location to the town of Kindred, North Dakota; a store from outside of town into DeLamere, ND; and a creamery and a schoolhouse in Milnor.  After Ole Ferdinand’s death in 1896, Frank continued in the house moving business for several years.  But he was also an accomplished carpenter who once made a set of bedroom furniture for his daughter Margaret that remains in the family and is owned by his great-grandchildren today.

Even younger brother Eddie gave carpentry a try.  In 1901 he worked as a boat builder for Andrew and Thea Foss, founders of the Foss Launch and Tug Company in Tacoma.  Either Tacoma or carpentry was not to his liking; by 1902 he was back in the Midwest, living in Minneapolis and working as a salesman.

Like his brother Ole Ferdinand, Anton also took on large projects.  In 1875 he built the East Norway Lake Lutheran Church in Kandiyohi County, Minnesota.  The church’s centennial publication said of him, “It has been, and is, the church’s good fortune that Kammen was an experienced structural engineer, as well as contractor.  The high and lengthy walls, though exposed for 100 years to weathering and wind are as sound and plumb and square as if they had been erected for inspection today.  Even a casual look inside the cross braced ceiling and roof gives an impression of great strength, almost as indestructible as the doctrine the gathering inside subscribes to.”[2]

(copyright East Norway Lake Lutheran Church centenniel publication,1875-1975)

Records show that Anton built the Lutheran Church very quickly.  The contract was let on Sunday, May 30, excavation began on May 31, the first stones for the basement were hauled the following Thursday, June 3, and the church was ready for the first Christmas program in December!

Anton, with a partner named John Hanson, also built the first school for the new village of  Dawson, MN, in 1885, a large two-story square wooden building (their bid was $2,185.  The school board had budgeted $3,000 for land acquisition and construction).
Among other projects, Anton Cammen, Chris Knutsen’s uncle and father-in-law, built the first schoolhouse in Dawson, Minnesota, in 1885.  The second floor of the wooden building was used as a gymnasium until increasing enrollment required its partitioning for extra classroom space.  By 1893 enrollment was at 300 and an addition extending the length was built onto the original building.

Chris not only had the opportunity to learn from his father, he learned from Anton as well.  After his marriage to Anna, the couple lived next door to Anton and Edwardina in Port Townsend and close to them in Dawson after their return to Minnesota in the 1890’s.  If Chris wanted to learn fine carpentry, he would surely have used Anton’s expertise.[3]

Port Townsend offered another mentor after the Knutsen family returned in 1895.  Otto Anderson, an accomplished cabinet-maker, no doubt worked closely with Chris while building “200 instruments” for him (see Otto Anderson) and probably helped refine his woodworking skills in the process of consultation on the designs.

In addition, a great-uncle by marriage,[4] Aslak Lie, was a famous cabinet-maker and woodcarver, both in Norway and in America.[5] Even if Chris didn’t work with him directly, his reputation in the family would have been an inspiration.

There is a secure tradition, then, of woodworking skills in the family, and Chris would have been exposed to quality work.  It is curious then, that Chris sometimes did not do the highest quality work himself.  In their book on Chris[6], Noe and Most remark that Knutsen’s instruments sometimes had “an odd or crude appearance” because he often used materials at hand and cite these examples: “the use of lots of screws, brackets, wing nuts, sheared-off tuning machine plates, dressmaker’s seam tape rather than wood strips to reinforce ribs and butt-fitted back plates, wire frets for the first twelve with the remaining ones being inlaid wood, fret-wire saddles, and odd-shaped nuts.”  They do not excuse this, but point out that perhaps he needed to take shortcuts in order to keep up the volume of production.  I would like to add that some of these uses seem rather ingenious.  Seam tape would not make good bracing, but it would provide extremely light-weight reinforcement for a join.

I have wondered about Chris’s education with respect to his ability to run a business as well as how he acquired his musical talent.  Chris did attend school as recorded in the 1870 Federal Census.  But for how long?  The 1875 Minnesota State Census and 1880 Federal Census are silent on this issue.  When Chris was sent to prison in 1882 at age 20, his file noted that he could not read or write.  Though prison clerks may not be the most reliable of bureaucrats, in this era it was not uncommon for children’s education to be incomplete in that their help was needed at home (my grandfather Cammon, born in 1872, did not go beyond third grade).  If Chris did not become literate until he was 20, the most likely place to have learned, then, was in prison where night school was offered eight months of the year, and prisoners were encouraged to attend.  Even if he was literate, he would be urged to continue and improve the skills he already had.  I think this must be what he did.

I have assumed Chris wrote his own advertising copy – whether his ad for masonry in the Sargent County Teller, or his broadsheet extolling the virtues of the “One Arm Guitar,” in 1900, though he could have dictated copy to the printer.  On the other hand, the 1900 census specifically asked if each person in the family could read and write.  “Yes” to both questions is recorded for Chris, his wife Anna, and their children, Bertha, and Evaulda (only Edwardina, Anna’s mother, said “No” to each).  And it seems unlikely to me that Chris would have applied for a patent if he could not read and write.

In writing this, I realized I had seen transcriptions of Chris’s signature but not his actual handwriting.  He was not making an “X,” so that suggests some degree of literacy.  I asked Tom Noe if he thought Chris could read and write, and he replied, “I guess it never occurred to me that Chris Knutsen might have been illiterate.  So much of what he did in his business life required that he have the ability to read and write to some degree.  For one thing, he signed labels and even had his signature notarized on labels around 1900 that went into Dyer harp guitars.  One such signature is at page 40 of the Knutsen book, although he signed it in red ink and it can be barely made out.  I have seen pictures of other Dyer labels that had the same signature.  It isn’t clear to me that he signed either of his design patents–the attorney may have written in his name.”[7]

The preponderance of evidence is clear that by 1900 Chris was sufficiently able to read, write, and run a business on his own.

In considering Chris’s evolution from mason to musician, it has become clear that by 1902 Chris could indeed play the harp guitar and not just pose with his instruments.  There is evidence aplenty as recounted by Gregg Miner in Chris Knutsen: Harp Guitar “Triple Threat”.  I was utterly amazed, however, to learn his first instrument was most probably a violin (see Otto Anderson).  How unfortunate there is as yet no incontrovertible evidence from the 1870’s, ‘80’s, or even the ‘90’s that Chris participated in a musical group or that he sang or played a solo instrument.  Until 1902 when we have Chris and Anna in the picture of Payne’s Mandolin and Guitar School and the review in the Spokane Spokesman-Review, the evidence for Chris’s musicality is all circumstantial.

Participation in band or orchestra was available to Chris during the months in 1882 that he spent at Minnesota State Prison.[8]  Lead by an experienced citizen, the orchestra played for chapel and for entertainments while the band played concerts on Sundays and holidays.  We can only guess if Chris played and if so, was his instrument the violin?

Before this, Chris’s school-age years were spent in Northfield, Minnesota, and I have read the Northfield papers for 1868-1875, but I found no Cammons mentioned, even on school attendance and deportment lists, in fact no Cammons on any topic whatsoever.  The papers did not generally report names of participants in the various entertainments offered to the community – there was a band, for instance, but not even the leader was named.

In Milnor, it was a different story.  During their school years in the 1890’s, Chris’s siblings Eddie and Marie were named frequently whenever the Teller had a story about an entertainment.  Marie played piano.  Eddie debated, acted (the lead) in local productions, sang, and possibly played an instrument.  Northfield and Milnor, as well as many other towns had bands–as long as they could find someone who would volunteer to lead–and Milnor even had a mandolin and guitar club.  Chris’s next youngest sister, Hansine (called Winnie), whose growing up years were also spent in Northfield, was “an actress and light opera singer.”[9]  She is the only one in the family, besides Chris, with professional music credentials.

Based on what is available about Chris’s siblings, the Cammon children who were interested in music were encouraged to learn and to learn well enough to perform publicly.  Certainly for Chris, the support and opportunity were there.[10]

Chris’s life stands as its own evidence.  Masonry seems far removed from woodworking, but it is only one aspect of carpentry and a skill that he could use to support himself while he learned to do what he obviously wanted to do – learn woodworking well enough to become a luthier.  He had to be literate in order to communicate, write advertising, and understand his contracts.  He had to have had some musical training – could one make a stringed instrument without having an ear for pitch?   In addition, Chris appears to have had great tenacity, focus, talent, creativity, and even some degree of genius.

[1] O.F. misspelled “Kalsomining” which comes from the word calcimine.  Kalsomining or Calcimining means to cover or wash with calcimine, or in other words, to use whitewash.

[2] Hauge, Marvin, East Norway Lake Lutheran Church, 1875-1975, New London, MN, 1975, p.13.

[3] Chris too could share his skill.  It is probable he built the chimney on the older portion of Anton’s Port Townsend house (see Knutsen residences today), but it is impossible to say for sure until the design can be compared to another known chimney that Chris constructed.

[4] Aslak Lie married Marit Knutsdatter Dølve Kammen, sister to Anne Knutsdatter Dølve Kammen mentioned in “Coming to America” and Ole Knutson Kammen, Chris’s grandfather.  He was born in Valdres where the Kammens came from originally.

[5] On a trip to Norway in 1999 my husband and I visited the Reinli stavechurch in Valdres where the Kammen ancestors attended and we were able to see one of Aslak Lie’s works.  Behind the pulpit and high on the wall above the organ pipes is a large carving, not intricate but finely done and with a great sense of movement, of two crossed violins with a horn in front and ornamented with blue and gilt swirls.  Above the violins is a carved crown which fastens in place by sitting on a peg.  This crown was once stolen and later recovered from a museum where it was on display.  When it was stolen, the crown was broken and the thieves left two pieces behind which the church saved in a cupboard.  When the carving was restored to its original place in the church, the replacement pieces made by the museum were used, but the old ones were kept.  On our visit, the cupboard was opened and the original pieces handed to us to hold.  I have actually handled pieces of pine wood carved and painted by Aslak Lie.

Built about 1140, Reinli Stave Church in the Valdres region of Norway is about 80 km NW of Oslo.  Chris Knutsen’s great-grandfather Knut Olsen Kammen attended here as did his great-uncle Aslak Lie.  These medieval churches combine pagan (the fanciful bird carvings seen here) and Christian elements (the cross at the peak).  Only 30 of these Scandinavian wood churches, all in Norway, survive today.

The interior of the Reinli Stave Church features a long single nave.  At the end is an organ dating from 1808.  The doors covering the organ pipes and the wood sculpture above them were all carved and painted by Aslak Olsen Lie about 1830.  The triptych below the organ pipes was installed in 1923.

[6] Noe, George T. & Most, Daniel L., Chris J. Knutsen: From Harp Guitars to the New Hawaiian Family, Everett, Washington, 1999, p. 118.

[7] Email from George T. Noe, March 22, 2006.

[8] Heilbron, W.C., Convict Life at the Minnesota State Prison, Valley History Press, Stillwater, Minnesota, 1996, pp. 83-84.

[9] Thalacker, Kathryn Irene Smith, River Bend Farm: The Story of Halvor Hanson and His Progeny,” Rice Lake, WI, 1989, p.133.

[10] I thought I could extrapolate about the musicality of Chris’s family using my own Cammon family as an example, but I fear not. (To clarify, my grandfather, Oscar Cammon was a first cousin to Chris Knutsen; that is, their fathers were brothers.)   One of my childhood memories of visiting at my Cammon grandparents’ was being allowed to play in the west bedroom closet, a treasure trove of forgotten artifacts.  Among them were my Uncle Bob’s cornet (which he remembers playing when he was high school age), my dad’s violin (not made by Chris Knutsen–I have checked), and an old accordion with mother-of-pearl buttons that belonged to one of my Grandma’s brothers.  In the upstairs hall was a beautiful pump organ that Grandma inherited from her parents and downstairs in the living room was an upright Jacob Doll piano that Grandpa Cammon and his brother Martin owned together before Grandpa and Grandma married.  I don’t remember the harp guitar, but perhaps it was hidden from prying little hands.  Grandpa and Grandma were generous but not foolish.  As for singing, I recall my father had a pleasant baritone, but Uncle Bob says, “We weren’t very musical,” and as further evidence cites his wife asserting maybe he could play piano, “but you sure can’t sing.”  Today, the cornet is gone.  Uncle Bob thinks his father traded it for an old Studebaker about 1950.  The accordion is gone, probably in that same Studebaker bargain.  How grateful we are that the harp guitar was spared such a practical disposal.  The piano and organ are both in Uncle Bob’s living room where he plays them.  I have the violin and harp guitar which I admire from a safe distance.

Chris Knutsen: Years of Decision: Chapters 1-3

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