How One Woman's Life Decorated A Town

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Ask Elaine Drorbaugh what it was like serving as Payson's Vice Mayor for six years and her first response is a smile, followed by a brief silent laugh.

"You don't have any idea how scared I was," Drorbaugh said.

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A census taker once asked Elaine Drorbaugh what her occupation was. "Professional Volunteer," she told him. The Jr. Women's Club, the Payson Womans Club, the hospital board, the little theater group, the Pine-Payson Fair when it was held in Pine and the Payson Lioness Club.

Although she had raised a family, was an experienced entrepreneur and had volunteered in many organizations to make her town a better place, she was incredulous when "a committee of gentlemen" came to her and asked her to run for the town council.

"I told them, I can't talk in front of an audience," she said.

From his hospital bed her father advised her, "Sister, you go for it. You can do it."

"Well, I guess you are going to run for town council," her husband Walt told her on the way home.

Elaine protested.

"Your dad said you could," Walt told her.

Drorbaugh served the town from 1982 to 1990. The first two years, she was simply a council member.

Her routine was to pick up an agenda on Tuesday, then read it. Then, if there was property to go and look at or other issues to investigate, she did so.

"I voted for some things I didn't like, but the people I represented wanted it," she said. "But I never voted for anything I didn't study first."

"Looking back, I think we did a lot of really good things for the community," she said, such as the Green Valley Lakes project, which draws tourists and locals to fish and picnic.

She was also part of the Take Pride in Payson committee that started the ball rolling to improve Main Street. Among the improvements are the old-fashioned street lamps and trees that adorn the historic area. She said private citizens initially funded Main Street's street lamps and trees.

"It wasn't just me and the committee, citizens stepped up and took their part," she said.

As the person who started the adopt-a-street and clean-up program, she was responsible for seeing that 59 stretches of road between "Heber at the top of the Rim to way down South" had people picking up trash on a quarterly basis. The Arizona Department of Transportation later took over.

Perhaps her proudest accomplishment while on the council was her role as "the tree lady."

The Forest Service was replanting trees in the forest. When it got too hot to plant them, Drorbaugh was able to give them away to anyone who came to get one.

"I must have given away 6,000 ponderosa pines," she said. "People still come up to me and say, you've got to see how my tree has grown."

"I was the tree lady, the cake lady and for years I decorated my home on Ash with thousands of lights, so then I was the Christmas lady," she said.

She was quite the doll collector. And, she might well have been "the rose lady," for 38 bushes flowered in her yard.

Elaine was born in Missouri and grew up in Mesa. She met the man she would marry, Walt Drorbaugh, while dancing with friends at the Mezona.

They did not much like each other at first, but after verbally sparring and making up a number of times, they wed on March 13, 1948.

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To this day, although she married a man who raised fish, Drorbaugh has never eaten a fish in her life. "But I love to fish," she said.

Walt worked for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Over the next 15 years they made 34 moves to hatcheries around the state including Tonto, Pinetop, Cottonwood and Page Springs.

When she realized their children Daniel and Alice were having trouble making friends because of all the moves, the family decided to settle down in Payson.

The children attended Julia Randall Elementary School.

"In 1959, we rented a store across from the Women's Club," she said.

From stocking shelves to working behind the counter, Elaine did it all.

Her sister-in-law had a beauty shop in one corner.

Walt and Art's Mercantile sold nails, guns, toys, fishing equipment and school supplies.

They also sold shoes and clothing.

"At that time for women, squaw dresses were all the rage," Drorbaugh said. "They were full-skirted dresses, fancy with rickrack and all kinds of colors of fabric."

"I knew everyone who came in by name," Elaine said. "Now, I go out to stores and I don't see anyone I know."

When Art was killed on a forest fire in 1961, the Drorbaughs sold the mercantile.

But, Elaine has fond memories of events on Main Street.

She recalls dancing at the old Elk's Dance Hall when it was the Winchester.

"We had pot lucks and bake sales and you name it there," she said.

Pat Cline was one of the first women she met in Payson.

"She has been a dear friend ever since and is quite a card," Drorbaugh said.

Both were members of "the little theatre group."

"My swan song was ‘Arsenic and Old Lace,'" she said. "I played one of the sisters."

Drorbaugh even missed a shot at a deer because she was studying her lines on a hunt.

Memories of past performances bring smiles to her face.

Pat Cline played "a country hick" in one play and she was taller than the short fellow that seemed to be on stage with her in every scene.

Miss Julia Randall, who Elaine describes as "a good sport" -- she carried a Reader's Digest on stage to help her remember her lines and when she left it there could be heard calling, "My book! Get my book!"

With everything going on, Elaine still found time for a new profession.

In 1968 she was casting about for something to do so she could be with her children when they got home from school, when a couple called and asked her to make their wedding cake.

They wanted five snow-white tiers with champagne glasses in between each tier.

"I can't do that, I don't have the tools," she said.

They pleaded.

She acquiesced.

Conditionally.

They had to transport the confection.

Drorbaugh enjoyed baking and decorating cakes once she got started and her business grew by word-of-mouth.

For the next 28 years Drorbaugh was "the cake lady."

Could there be a better place to live than Payson? Drorbaugh thinks not.

When tragedy struck in her life, there was always a friend offering help.

"I have never felt alone in Payson," she said.

When she visits her Missouri kin, they ask her why she is in such a hurry to get back home.

"I'm in love with the Mogollon Rim," she tells them. "Looking up at the Rim, I feel safe."

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