Helen Newhall Penniman's family moved to Oakland, California in 1862 where she met George Pardee while attending Oakland High School. High school sweethearts, George and Helen married on January 25, 1887. They had four daughters.
After Helen graduated from Oakland High School in 1875, she attended the California State Normal School. The Normal School was a school for training teachers that was established by the State Legislature in 1862 – the first institution of higher learning in California. The college that is now known as San Jose State University was the founding campus of the state university system. Helen went on to teach school for ten years, at the Grove Street School in Oakland.
While a single woman in her twenties, Helen Penniman was part of an informal club group of nature-loving friends known as the "Merry Tramps of Oakland." Helen was known as "Helen Blazes" by her Merry Tramp friends, both for her beautiful red hair and fiery personality. She was referred to as an individualist and free-thinker who loved nature, art, and collectibles. She was an artist who took lessons from the successful landscape painter, Raymond Dabb Yelland, who was born in England and a director of the San Francisco School of Design.
During the last of her camping years, Helen and her friends began piecing a crazy quilt inspired by nature with black, gold and copper fabrics. One special tan fabric scrap embroidered with "Lincoln" is said to have come from a dress of Mary Todd Lincoln's. This quilt is on display at the historic Pardee Home Museum in Oakland along with some of Helen's art work and her many collections.
Helen was an avid collector of art and cultural objects from different cultures across the world. When the family moved into the Governor's Mansion, Helen brought some of her amazing collection with her. The Pardees were the first family to live in the Governor's Mansion located on the corner of 16th and H Streets in downtown Sacramento. The mansion still contains the 1902 Steinway piano that the Pardees brought with them. Collecting objects was a life long passion and her collections are on display at the Pardee Home Museum. Helen Pardee died at age 89 on March 10, 1947 at and is buried with her family in the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.