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Nancy Hendrickson: North Dakota photographer and true trailblazer

Posted by Annie Bennett, Co-Editor 3/18/2019 3:41:29 PM

In today’s world of computers, digital cameras, and editing programs, a person can take many photos and make them look like anything is possible. Back in the early 1900s, just owning a camera was unique, and so was a motorcycling woman who wasn’t afraid to think outside the box.

Life on the Homestead

Nancy Christenson Apenes Hendrickson was born Feb. 26, 1886, in her parents’ 16-by-16-foot homestead house, located 12-miles south of Mandan on the Heart River. It was home to Hendrickson’s parents and her five siblings, who immigrated from Sweden the year before. Her father, Sone, was a farmer and her mother, Christina, took care of the cooking, cleaning and children.

The homestead was full, but that didn’t stop the Hendrickson family from inviting guests into their home. “Even with eight people living in the house, if a visitor showed up, they made up another bed. They always found room,” says Tom Chase, tour guide at the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum.

“Hendrickson loved life on the homestead and lived her entire life near the Heart River,” adds Kimberly Jondahl, communication and education director with the State Historical Society of North Dakota (SHSND). “At nine years old, Hendrickson made her first trip to Mandan, and it is reported, the longest she was ever gone from the homestead was in 1933, to attend the World’s Fair in Chicago.”

Many Talents

Hendrickson only had 11 months of formal education, attending classes held every other year during the winter months at area farm houses. “Hendrickson did more of her learning from the numerous magazines her family subscribed to,” says Chase. “It was from these publications she learned many helpful skills.”

In 1908, Hendrickson’s father became ill and died, and Hendrickson started working to earn additional income. She had developed many skills and was able to apply them to the different jobs she held.

“I admire Nancy Hendrickson,” says Jondahl, who collaborated on a book highlighting a collection of Hendrickson’s photography. “She was an entrepreneur with many talents and creative ways of earning an income as a woman living a hardscrabble life back in the 1920s and 30s. She created and sewed wedding dresses and clothing for neighbors, sold seeds to the Oscar H. Will Seed Company, worked as a census taker, reported weather statistics to the Weather Bureau, and sold canned good, plants and pickings right from her three-acre garden.”

Hendrickson also wrote community events articles for the Mandan Pioneer for numerous years and sold her unique photographs for income during the Great Depression, adds Jondahl.


In 1912, Hendrickson built her own homestead a mile from her childhood home. “She built a small house and raised currants, rhubarb and other produce,” says Jondahl. “She had a great curiosity, a creative mind, and was a voracious reader.” The homestead shack is now on display at the North Dakota Heritage Center and Museum.

“In 1923, her mother became ill, so Hendrickson moved back into her mother’s home, the Heart River homestead,” says Sharon Silengo, photo archivist at the SHSND. According to a March 31, 2006 article in the Mandan News, Hendrickson’s mother promised her the farm if she would stay to care for her. “It was at this time, when she moved back into the family homestead, that Hendrickson decided to let her three-acre nursery garden go and focus on her photography.”

In 1902, Hendrickson purchased her first camera, a box camera, for 35 cents. “Nancy’s professional photographs were taken on glass plates, which preceded photographic flexible film,” says Silengo, . “Later she bought a better camera, an Ansco 3a Speedex camera, that was much smaller and lighter, and easier to handle.”

While Hendrickson is remembered for her photography of different landscapes, events and animals, including dogs, birds, ducks, chickens, gophers, rabbits, and coyote pups, whom she housed for a period, her most famous subjects were her cats. Hendrickson sewed outfits for her animals, set up themed photo shoots and took photos of posed animals.

“From the time she moved in with her mother until her mother’s death in 1926, Hendrickson took all of her photos on the porch, as she didn’t want to leave her mother,” says Silengo. “All her animal photographs were taken outdoors in natural light, so she didn’t have to purchase lights or have a studio. Her mother’s farm did not have electricity until the late 1930s,” Silengo adds.

Working with animals is no easy feat, especially getting them to pose for photos, but Hendrickson had great tactics, notes Jondahl. “Nancy said she always had pets and worked with them until they were willing to pose,” she says. “During an interview, Nancy stated they would get treats of raw pigeon after the photo shoots, and that the cats would come running when she and her brother were setting up little props for a photo session.”

Making a Living

“The real bread winner was her cat photography,” says Chase. “She would sell her images to newspapers and magazines in New York, Sweden and England.”

Hendrickson would find out about possible places to submit her work from the large collection of magazines her family kept in their library, says Silengo. “She published her work under the pseudonym ‘PC Bill,’ short for Pancake Bill, as women weren’t accepted as photographers back then,” she notes. Norman Paulson, former State Historical Society of North Dakota museum curator stated in his “Notes on Nancy Hendrickson” that Hendrickson would sell images for $3 per photo as well as postcards of her work.

“Hendrickson developed her own images in her darkroom, and began selling photos,” says Jondahl, noting Hendrickson was an official Kodak Processor and had her own at-home dark room that she used to develop her own photos, as well as for her friends and neighbors. “Nancy had a wooden contact printing frame on the north side of her home darkroom. While in the darkroom, she would fit the negative and paper into the frame and then go outside the darkroom to open the holder cover to allow the sunlight in,” says Silengo. “The sunlight would act as a natural light source making an image on the photo paper that could be developed in the darkroom.”

According to Paulson’s notes on Jan. 18, 1974, the highest price Hendrickson was paid was $50 for a photo of a kitten wearing a headdress.

“While cats are all over the internet today, Nancy was the first North Dakota photographer that we know of to successfully sell novelty animal photography on a national and international level,” says Jondahl.

Hendrickson continued her photography until World War II, when she was unable to get the chemicals to complete her work. “Over the years, she photographed over 5,000 images, and about half have never been viewed. Many are still only in negative format, waiting for staff and resources to digitize them,” says Silengo.

In Nov. 1977, Hendrickson’s nieces and nephews donated their collection of her photography to the SHSND. The collection includes thousands of images, many that have never been seen. “We were gifted two shoeboxes full of 35 millimeter and 3 1/4” x 5 1/2” negatives that have since been put in archival sleeves, but have not been digitized yet,” says Silengo.

A Real Trailblazer

In addition to Hendrickson’s talents as a care-giver, photographer, seamstress and photographer, she also had many unique hobbies. “She was talented in horse back riding, and could ride her horse better than most men,” says Chase. “Her horse, Two-Bit, which she had for 20 years, would come when she whistled.”

Hendrickson also enjoyed riding her motorcycle and driving her car. “Nancy had a 1917 Excelsior Model Big X motorcycle, that she got in 1912 when she was 26, to ride when the local horses started getting glanders, a highly infectious disease,” says Silengo. “She was afraid if she rode her favorite horse, Two-Bit, to town he would catch it and get sick. In 1927, Nancy won the rights to buy the first Ford Model A automobile brought to Mandan.”

Hendrickson was also an avid collector. “Nancy had over 100 jars of sand,” says Chase. “The jars were from different states. The only states that were missing were Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont.”

Hendrickson married Herman Apenes on December 29, 1927 and the couple was married until his death in 1934. Hendrickson married again on October 2, 1935 to her childhood friend, Carl Hendrickson, who grew up on a farmstead close to the family homestead. “Carl had been in Alaska working as a blacksmith and mechanic for Pacific American Fisheries,” says Silengo. “He resigned his position in September 1935, moved straight back to Mandan and married Nancy.”

They were married until his death in 1970. Hendrickson passed away on Nov. 20, 1978 at the age of 92. She was survived by three nephews and three nieces.

To see more of Hendrickson’s photography, visit North Dakota State Archives located in the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum. Some of Hendrickson’s work is also available in the North Dakota State Archives digital archives, or on their Flickr account,

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