Botany & Herbarium

Ida Hrubesky Pemberton - Biography

Biography by Carolyn Crawford, published here with permission of James J. White, Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University.

Ida Pemberton as a young girl

Ida Pemberton as a young girl; date unknown.

Early Life

About 40 miles west-northwest of Omaha, Nebraska, just north of the Platte River, is located the town of Schuyler. It is the county seat of Colfax County, both named for Schuyler Colfax (1823-1885), vice-president during Ulysses S. Grant's first term. It was here in Schuyler on 24 April 1890 that Ida Rohann Hrubesky was born, the youngest of five children.

Ida's parents were Chauncy W. (1850-1932) and Anna Hrubesky (1852-1931), and Ida's middle name, Rohann, was her mother's maiden name. Both the Hrubeskys and the Rohanns had emigrated from Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. The Hrubesky surname has at least two alternative spellings (Hrubecky and Hrubeska), and different branches of the family use different spellings. Ida's paternal grandparents, Anton (1810-1891) and Anna (1820-1884) Hrubesky, and their three sons came to America in the late 1850s from the town of Temelin, Bohemia, apparently spending some time in Wisconsin and Iowa before settling permanently in Nebraska. Ida's maternal grandparents, John and Julia Rohann, were farming near Waukau, Winnebago County, Wisconsin, in the 1850s. The Rohanns had four children, Leopold, Thomas, Eva, and Anna. Chauncy Hrubesky and Anna Rohann were married in 1878 in Racine, Wisconsin, shortly before moving to Nebraska.

In 1878, Ida's paternal grandparents, parents, two uncles (Thomas H. 1847-1912 and Frank J. 1858-1937), an aunt (Mary, 1865-1893), and Thomas' wife and children moved to Schuyler, a total of about 11 Hrubeskys. They immediately set up business as blacksmiths and carriage-and wagon-builders, under the name of Hrubesky Brothers, with Ida's father Chauncy W. and uncle Thomas H. as principals. They were hardworking and active in the community. Chauncy W. Hrubesky is listed as being on the volunteer fire department and on the board of trustees of the Opera House. Ida's other uncle, Frank H., was Colfax County commissioner in 1898-1899, Ida's grandparents, aunt, uncles, and most of their families are buried in the cemetery in Schuyler.

In 1896, Ida's parents relocated their family to Geneva, Fillmore County, Nebraska. By 1898, Chauncy W. had purchased a combination furniture store and undertaking business in Geneva. Ida was 6 when the family moved to Geneva, which is located approximately 45 miles southwest of Lincoln. It is here that she spent the rest of her childhood, graduating from high school in 1908. Little is known of Ida's early ears. She had two sisters, Lilian May and Lucille, and two brothers, Frank W. and Chauncy G.

According to Lilian, Ida's talent was probably inherited from their mother. Early in her childhood, Ida was known to "…have sketched and splashed paints about generously, ever alert to beautiful form and color. Various friends were happy recipients of cards and letters illustrated often with copied drawings of children's activities…" (letter from Lilian Hrubesky to Hugo Rodeck, 2 April 1956). Obviously, Ida's abilities with design and color manifested themselves at an early age. We can also presume the young scientist in her was peering deep into flowers, ever curious of their inner workings.

Ida's sister Lucille (1879-1944) graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1911, with an A.B. in botany. She studied under Charles Edwin Bessey (1845-1915), a prominent botanist who developed a system of plant classification, and it is likely that Ida's interest in botany was influenced by her sister. Lucile is reported to have taught school and was the librarian at Kearney High School, Kearney, Nebraska, in the 1920s and 1930s. She never married and is buried in the family plot at Geneva.

Ida's sister Lilian (1880-1977) also was a librarian and was reported to be a college graduate as well, presumably from the University of Nebraska. Correspondence held in the University of Colorado Museum's Pemberton collection shows that Lilian lived in Nebraska City, Nebraska, and in Los Angeles. She never married and is buried in the family plot at Geneva.

Ida's brother Chauncy G. (1884-1951) was a Fillmore County surveyor. He, too, is buried in Geneva. Ida's brother Frank W. (1886-1964) also attended the University of Nebraska, and was on campus in 1906, but I have not determined whether he graduated. In 1915, he received his embalmer's diploma and then operated the family's undertaking business in Geneva after 1920. He and his wife Myrtle are also buried in Geneva.

College Years

For two semesters (1910-1911), Ida attended Doane College in Crete, Nebraska, a small college located about 20 miles southwest of Lincoln. Her transcript indicates she pursued a rather typical liberal arts course of study, including a four-hour course in general botany. Ida was taking botany as a freshman at Doane at the same time that her sister Lucile was a senior in botany at the University of Nebraska.

After one year at Doane, she enrolled at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, beginning in the fall of 1911, just after her sister Lucile had finished. She took several courses in drawing and fine art and studied there until 1931. Much larger classes, coupled with a hearing impairment, made Ida's studies there a greater challenge. Records show she left after four semesters and did not graduate.

In 1915, after a two-year hiatus, Ida finally decided to "play to her strength" and enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. Her family helped her financially so that she could afford to attend. Complete transcript records were apparently not kept on each student at that point, but according to a letter from the institute dated 13 April 1956, Ida more than likely studied pictorial illustration, decorative illustration, decorative composition, still life, and sketching from life. She studied there until 1916 but apparently did not graduate.

Postcards Ida sent to Lilian during this period indicate that she and her friends definitely enjoyed the opera and the many other cultural amenities Chicago had to offer. It is also very likely that Chicago is where Ida met her future husband, William E. Pemberton.

William E. Pemberton, born in 1881, was nine years Ida's senior. His obituary (Denver Post, 5 November 1963) states he "was born in Ontario, Canada." They were married in Ida's hometown of Geneva, Nebraska, in 1918. Ida was 28 and William was 37.

I have not been able to determine where Ida and William first settled after their marriage. Perhaps they lived in Nebraska near her family, but their whereabouts from 1918 to 1924 have not been determined with certainty. Ida is reported to have been teaching school in 1920.

However, city directories accessed at the Denver Public Library place them in Denver starting in 1924, where they are listed as living at 1320 South Vine Street. At that time, William was listed as a manager for the Farmers & Merchants Creamery Company. He worked for several different companies in different capacities until the early 1940s. At that time, he became a realtor, sold insurance, and brokered mortgage loans.

Over the next 26 years after their arrival in Denver and before Ida's death, they lived at several addresses. Between the time they arrived in Denver and the end of World War II, in addition to the Vine Street address, they lived at 1080 South Franklin Street (1926-1931), 331 Corona Street (1934-1940), and 20 Corona Street (1942-1946), all on Denver's near southeast side. They were at 331 Corona the longest, and during that period it is likely that Ida was able to establish the garden that produced the plants for these paintings.

Ida and her husband William E. Pemberton

Ida and her husband William E. Pemberton. Date unknown.

In 1931, at age 41, Ida gave birth to their only child, a son. Tragically, the boy was killed at age 4 from being struck by a car. Records do not indicate that Ida and William had any other children, and William's obituary does not mention a son preceding him in death.

In 1935, Ida found inner solace at this point in her life by commencing the painting of these outstanding, majestic botanical artworks. It took Ida about 7 years to complete 65 works that comprise the collection. Her decision to choose herbal and medicinal plants was out of a perceived necessity of limiting her focus on "one group of plants at a time." She definitely had plans for more groups later. She also intended these works to be published somewhere in a book and worked tirelessly to try to make this a reality.

Amongst the "lore" that surrounds Ida's botanical art career, one fact keeps popping up: she grew all of the plants she painted from seed and bulb she acquired from around the world. It is also said that she was an avid gardener, and even Lilian said she had an extensive collection of botanical and horticultural books. Clearly the approach Ida took to creating each painting would indicate all of the above had to be true. The period 1935 to 1942, during which she painted the collection, correlates well with the dates she and William lived at 331 Corona Street. This would have provided the time to establish and maintain a garden to cultivate these plants. Many of the plants are large-rooted perennials that would take several years to mature sufficiently to paint a truly representative portrait of the species.

However, from the end of World War II to 1951, Ida and William lived in four different residences in Denver. From 1942 to 1946, they lived at 20 Corona Street; in 1947, 788 Adams Street; in 1948, 970 Corona Street; and from 1949 to 1951, at 1170 South Garfield Street. It would be very unlikely that she would have been able to establish any sizable kind of garden at any of these residences in such short periods of time.

Letters from Lilian to Dr. Rodeck also indicate that William's health began to suffer around 1946 (he would have been 65 at that time) and that he and Ida were experiencing financial reverses. It was largely because of this that Ida began to pursue the idea of publication with even greater zeal than before. She designed endpapers in ink and a cover in ink and watercolor for the unpublished "Drug Plants." She also produced botanical art for the Home Garden Club of Denver: very detailed, intricate pen-and-ink drawings of many different seedpods.

In October of 1949, Ida carried her portfolio to the Art Institute of Chicago, the New Botanical Garden, National Geographic Magazine, the Smithsonian Institution, and Life Magazine. Always in the hope that she would find a publisher, she never gave up.

In the fall of 1950, Ida was honored with a one-person exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden. It was at this exhibit that another Colorado native, botanical artist Anne Ophelia Todd Dowden, found inspiration that really got her career going. A personal friend of mine, Anne Ophelia needs no introduction to anyone familiar with superlative botanical art. She still talks of how Ida's work inspired her.

Sadly, Ida's life and career were cut short. On Tuesday, 23 January 1951, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage (stroke) and died at her home at 1170 South Garfield in Denver. She was interred two days later at Crown Hill Cemetery in suburban Wheat Ridge, Colorado. There was no obituary in either of the two Denver Dailies; only a very short funeral notice was published.

Shortly thereafter, William moved from the South Garfield address to 1350 Fillmore Street. In 1955, after some negotiations, he sold Ida's collection of paintings, along with incidental drawings to the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. Soon after acquisition of the collection, the museum agreed to loan 50 of the paints to the Smithsonian for a traveling exhibit. During the next several years, the exhibit traveled to a number of different venues around the United States.

Dr. Hugo Rodeck, the then-director of the museum, and Lilian Hrubesky corresponded frequently, and she became his one good source for biographical information about her sister. By this time, William's health had become so fragile and his memory so impaired that the museum and Lilian felt it best to rely on other people for information about Ida's life and career.

When I began this project, I was given a file box of correspondence, photos, and other artifacts, with which to piece together as best I could the pertinent facts regarding Ida's life. As I said earlier, the letters Ida's sister Lilian wrote were by far the best source of insight. However, several of Ida's friends provided information to the museum at the time the collection was acquired. Nellie Williams Beaven (Mrs. W. C. Beaven), a librarian in Geneva, Nebraska, penned a lovely tribute to Ida, stating: "I can truthfully say that I never knew anyone more loveable. Naturally of sunny disposition and unusual thoughtfulness, she was helpful to all who knew her." Katherine Bruderlin Crisp (Mrs. W. H. Crisp) of Denver responded to inquiries of the museum with a great deal of helpful information about Denver addresses and her garden club activities. Mrs. Crisp provided the Home Garden Club of Denver directory with the artwork acknowledgement to Ida. Of Ida's work, Mrs. Crisp said: "The result is not a cold recording of minutiae, but warm, lifelike images, with texture of leaf and petal that give sensation to the fingertips, without their being touched."

In the packet of materials about Ida, I came across William E. Pemberton's obituary. He passed on Sunday, 3 November 1963. Since he was buried at Crown Hill Cemetery, I decided to search for Ida's grave marker there as well. The office staff directed me to the two separate gravesites. Since Ida preceded William in death by 12 years, they were not buried side-by-side, but in separate sections of the cemetery. A Pemberton family plot had not been purchased ahead of time.

In compiling this biographical sketch of Ida, I must acknowledge the help of several individuals, without whom I would not have been able to finish this research. The staff at Western History and Genealogical Library at the Denver Public Library was most helpful in directing me to microfilm records and other references. Ms. Sharlene K. Miller, Webmaster for the Fillmore Country, Nebraska, Web site of the Nebraska Genealogical Web (NEGenWeb), provided additional material on Ida's brother Frank. Her tireless work in maintaining the helpful Web site is also deeply appreciated. Most helpful was Ms. Sarah Schneider of Springfield, Virginia. She and her brother James C. Murdoch have been compiling the Hrubesky/Hrubecky/Hrubeska and Rohann family genealogies. They provided us with the conclusive genealogical information to tie together the bits and pieces about Ida's family that were gleaned from the internet. Sarah and James, descendents of both the Hrubeckys and Rohanns, are distant cousins of Ida. But most of all, I thank my husband, William Jennings, for all of his help with the internet search, the section on the Hrubesky family history, the compilation of the Hrubesky family tree (now deposited in the Hunt Institute Archives), and most of all for his unwavering moral support throughout this project.

By Carolyn Crawford

About Carolyn Crawford

Carolyn Crawford received a bachelor of fine arts degree in education from Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma. She is a botanical artist working in watercolor pencil. Her work has been included in numerous exhibitions, including the Royal Horticultural Society's Westminster Fortnightly Show where she received the Grenfell Silver Medal (1988); the Hunt Institute's 6th International exhibition of Botanical Art & Illustration (1988); the Guild of Natural Science Illustrator's Picturing Natural History held at the Smithsonian Institution (1996); and Longwood Gardens' Flora 2000. She was one of three judges at the Denver Botanic Gardens' Third Annual Botanical Illustration Show in 1999. Her work has been commissioned by numerous organizations, such at the Denver Orchid Society, the Colorado Native Plant Society, the American Rock Garden Society, and Botanical Interests, Inc. a seed company in Broomfield, Colorado. From 1991 to 2000, she was a member of the faculty of the School of Botanical Illustration at the Denver Botanic Gardens and is currently teaching classes for the Colorado Native Plant Society. She is also a field botanist and a plant taxonomist specializing in the milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae).