Virginia Umberger spent a great deal of her 104 years growing and collecting gourds, plants that she said never ceased to surprise her.
The Elgin Public Museum is hosting the traveling exhibit, "Gourds: The Creations and Collections of Virginia Umberger," featuring a reception at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Contact information ( * required )
Gourds come in all shapes and sizes and can be manipulated to grow into specific shapes, she said.
"They are so variable and fascinating," the Elgin resident said. "All of the challenges to look into what to do with each of them. ... They were just a pleasure to me."
She and her husband Alton, who died in 1978, moved to Elgin in 1950 and grew gourds across the street from their home near Trout Park, in a spot that offered adequate sunlight, said their daughter, Nancy Rascher.
The Umbergers turned gourds into art, shaping them, for example, into different animals and wreaths. They also collected gourds from travels around the world, and took in gourds that friends bought for them.
Umberger remembers being especially surprised at the gourds she found in Mexico.
"The climate was right for growing. Some of the people that worked on the side of the road in Mexico, they had gourds as containers for their water."
The museum's display includes about 100 gourds, about a third of them grown and created by Umberger, museum coordinator Mike McGrath said.
Their shapes range from the whimsical, like frogs, whales and Peter Cottontail, to the utilitarian, like masks, spoons and rattles, he said. A couple are four or five feet long, he said.
Rascher approached the museum in late fall hoping to donate her mother's collection, which includes at least another 150 gourds stored at home.
"I was thinking she had a dozen gourds or something, then myself and (museum director) Peggy Stromberg went over to her house and it's like, 'Oh my God, this is incredible,' " McGrath said.
Umberger said she inherited her passion from gardening from her father, who moved the family from Wilmette to Indiana so he could start his own orchard.
Over time, she became known in the Chicago area as an authority on gourds, giving talks to gardening clubs and being featured in displays at the Chicago Botanic Garden and at McCormick Place in Chicago.
Umberger's dedication is truly inspirational, McGrath said.
"She's just an incredible woman that had this passion and just took it," McGrath said.
If there's any secret to living a long life, it's to find your passion, said Umberger, who turns 105 May 28.
"I would advise a young person to find their area of interest to then pursue that interest, and give it all the time and attention that they can," she said.
The Elgin Public Museum is at Lords Park at 225 Grand Blvd., Elgin. For information call (847) 741-5566 or visit elginpublicmuseum.org.
Any museum interested in displaying Umberger's gourd collection can email Rascher at email@example.com.