While cutting cottonwood trees for firewood in 1981, Tom Kalin’s chain saw bit into something hard enough to throw off sparks.
Usually that’s an indication of a rock, nail or screw embedded in the wood.
“So I went to the other side and we quartered it,” said Kerry Fritz, Kalin’s uncle.
The chain saw they were using had a 24-inch bar, and they couldn’t cut all the way through the base of the fat old tree, which was about 30 inches in diameter. Instead of a screw or nail, though, the two discovered something much more unusual.
“Sticking right in the middle of the thing was a knife,” Fritz said.
Unfortunately, the two didn’t take a photo of the knife embedded in the tree. Back in 1981 no one had cellphones with cameras always in their pocket. Kalin couldn't be reached by press time, as he was on a cruise.
Now 62 years old, Fritz said his family, who owned land across the Yellowstone River from Oscar’s Dreamland, often cut firewood along the stream in the fall and winter. The tree in which the knife was found had been cut down in 1980, but at the time the tree looked as if it had been dead for 30 years before that, he estimated.
Cottonwoods aren’t very long-lived when compared to other trees. Seventy years is about average and 120 years would be a very old cottonwood, according to a posting on the website of Northern State University, a South Dakota college. Fritz estimated the tree could have been 200 years old before he and his nephew discovered the knife.
The blade was upright in the tree, about 3 feet up from the base, as if someone had stuck it in the tree or the ground next to a young tree and the cottonwood had grown around it. There was no hole in the tree above the blade from which it could have been dropped inside.
“Somebody could have been traveling down the river and stepped off, but I don’t know why they would leave it,” Fritz said.
For years the knife resided on a cupboard shelf, pretty much forgotten. Then the television program “Antiques Roadshow” came to Billings in 2010 and Fritz took the knife to the event to see if they might be able to help him identify it.
“They told me the blade was European and the handle was cast in two distinct pours,” Fritz said, evidenced by a wavy line at the back of the handle.
He also showed it to knife makers at a couple of mountain man rendezvous. They couldn’t identify the make of the knife, but agreed that the blade was European.
Fritz’s interest in the blade waned until he went to sell some property recently and told the attorney doing the paperwork about the knife he had found. The attorney asked him to bring the knife in to the office so he could see it.
Billings history buff Bill Cole, who works in the same office, was alerted to the find and contacted The Billings Gazette. That’s why readers are hearing this tale so many years after the fact.
Discoveries of valuable or unusual artifacts have always fascinated. In 2014 an 1882 Winchester rifle was discovered leaning against a tree in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park. In 2009 a Glendive resident found a Civil War-era musket coated in bear grease and stashed inside the hollow of a tree near the Yellowstone River.
Tom Rust, a professor of history at Montana State University Billings, has investigated possible William Clark campsites along the Yellowstone River. Clark led a small group of explorers down the river in 1806 while mapping the route. He was co-leader of the famed expedition sent to look for a possible water passage across North America to the Pacific Ocean. Rust was looped in on Cole’s email about the knife.
“I generally have a healthy dose of skepticism about such things but am willing to be convinced,” Rust wrote. “The tree ring data, if it can be reproduced, would be interesting given that it is my understanding that cottonwood trees usually only live about 80-100 years. A 200-year-old tree would be something to begin with. The composition of the knife easily determined as the electron microscope on campus also can determine every element, including trace impurities, in the knife and in what proportion they are present. That would have to be correlated with other knives likely made in the same time period to check and cross-reference the impurities present in order to see if there is a ‘signature’ match. That would also need to be cross-referenced with samples +/-75 years or more on either side of the 200-year-old mark. That would probably require a pretty healthy sample, but it could be done.”
All of that work would be an expensive proposition, Rust added, and without information on the tree and its age the work may be moot since there is no physical evidence of the knife’s actual origin.
Photos of the knife were emailed to Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Gary Smith to examine. He wrote back, “I looked at the knife and to me it looks like a one-of-a-kind knife. I also looked through some references for historic period artifacts and could not locate anything that resembled this knife. Quite unique.”
Knife expert Bernard Levine has published several books on knives as well as guides to knives and their values. So The Gazette emailed him photos of Fritz’s knife to see if he had any clues about its background.
Levine wrote back that the knife had a “cast in place aluminum handle. Dozens of U.S. makers — hobbyist, custom and factory — made knives with cast aluminum handles, beginning in the 1920s and continuing now.
“There are many styles of those knives that I do recognize, but not that one. It most resembles some from Iowa and Minnesota.”
Cast aluminum is “the most common” metal used for knife handles, according to Bonner knife manufacturer Ruana Knives’ website. The custom knife maker likes aluminum because it encases the tang — an extension of the blade that runs into the handle — and “cast aluminum provides a strong handle that will not fall apart, it is there to stay unless you take a cutoff saw to it.”
Lost to history
It appears such a cast handle will also hold up to being embedded in the guts of a cottonwood tree, perhaps for 100 years.
“My dad used to tell me that area was close to the Brockway Trail that settlers used,” Fritz said. “It led up to flat ground and wasn’t real steep cliffs like you have across from Oscar's. It’s an extension of Jellison Road that runs parallel to the river.”
Could a settler have lost the knife? If so, how did it get inside the cottonwood tree?
The knife’s story is lost to history. The fact that it was found at all seems incredible. It could have easily ended up encased in a log that was thrown into a stove for winter heat, eventually melted into an unrecognizable blob and thrown out with ashes when the stove was cleaned.
Even without any history, Kalin is left to ponder the knife’s mysterious story.