Thursday, February 26, 2004
Today is the birthday of a sweet-spirited woman, Nancy Hendrickson; she was born in 1886 in a house built of cottonwood by Nancy’s Swedish father, Sone Christenson. They homesteaded on the Heart River where, just 10 years before, the 7th Cavalry crossed on their way to the Little Bighorn.
Nancy was the only one of Christenson’s six children to be born in America. She later homesteaded an adjoining quarter of land, and her little claim shack is now on display in the Heritage Center museum in Bismarck. Nancy lived on that ranch until the year she died at age 92. Even her education took place there, with school being held for 10 children in the front room every other winter. Nancy married twice, and both husbands moved in with the rest of the family, but by 1970, she had outlived them all.
Nancy was barely over 5 feet, but she had a great curiosity, was energetic and was a voracious reader. When she died in 1978, her library included copies of the Mandan Pioneer going back more than 100 years; she also owned every copy Life Magazine that had been published up ‘til that time – appropriate, because newspapers later played a major role in Nancy’s life.
Nancy didn’t get to nearby Mandan until she was nine years old. Then, she got a white gelding called Two Bits, which she kept for 22 years, and her horizons started to expand. Around 1915, she got a motorcycle, and the world opened up even farther.
Nancy had a hobby of sketching animals, which took an unforeseen turn when, at age 14, she bought a Kodak box camera – one of her first purchases she ever made. Her subjects could now be caught in real life. She dressed her farm animals in clothing and constructed little props to mimic human situations. In one photo, a cat lounges in a rowboat, while another tugs on the oars. In another, a cat and a rabbit sit side-by-side playing a duet on a toy piano. Two dogs are dressed for going out on the town – one is in a polka dot dress and feathered hat, while the bulldog wears a fedora and a suit and tie. Others include animals doing chores.
While photographing costumed animals is quite common today, Nancy was breaking new ground back then, and she soon gained national attention. She built a darkroom in her cramped house, where she did all her own developing and printing. Under the pseudonym, P.C. Bill, she published a series of post cards, and then a number of her pieces made it into notable publications like the Minneapolis Tribune, the Denver Post and the New York Times.
Money from her photography helped carry her family through the Great Depression, but when World War II made photography materials became scarce, Nancy had to instead rely on the ranch for a living.
Writer Ted Upgren described Nancy at age 91: “Her specialty is lifestyle. Though she herself may not be conscious of it, others are. Her unbending loyalty to her Heart River Valley heritage, her mockery of Father Time, and her rather successful avoidance of the ‘developed establishment’… is her adopted way… (She’s) unwilling to turn her back on the peaceful valley that has been her whole life and move to the city where some say she would be ‘so much more comfortable.’”
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm