Elizabeth Tolbert did not collect a salary during her three decades as mayor of Barnesville (population 172), a town that her forefathers helped found 35 miles northwest of Washington at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland.
She conducted much of her mayoral business at the dining table in the white farmhouse where she was born and where she spent nearly her entire life. Her staff consisted of one part-time clerk-treasurer who held the job into her early 90s and whom Mrs. Tolbert said she “could not do without.”
Election after election, town residents dropped their ballots in a cigar box and returned Mrs. Tolbert to office. Voters knew that as long as Mrs. Tolbert was mayor, new neighbors would be greeted with homemade pies. The developers who had overtaken much of the rest of the region would not receive the same welcome.
“We don’t have but one stop sign,” Luke Fedders, Barnesville’s current mayor, said in an interview. “It’s just a small town that she was able to keep a small town.”
Mrs. Tolbert, known to many in town as “Miss Lib,” died Feb. 17 at an assisted living facility in nearby Clarksburg. She was 88 and had congestive heart failure, said her daughter, Eleanor Lawrence.
“The straight-talking lady don of Montgomery County politics” — that was how The Washington Post once described Mrs. Tolbert. She led one of the smallest municipalities in her state, but through longevity and pluckiness became a political powerhouse.
“Anybody local who was running for any sort of position would stop by to see Lib . . . to get her blessing,” William Price, a lifelong Barnesville resident, recalled in an interview.
To be precise, the people of Barnesville elect three town commissioners, one of whom is named mayor. By tradition, the honor goes to the commissioner who receives the most votes. That person was almost always Mrs. Tolbert.
She first became mayor in 1965 and served for four years. She returned to the office in 1975 and remained there until her retirement in 2001.
One year, The Post reported, she failed to win the greatest number of votes, but the other commissioners made her mayor nonetheless. It seemed only sporting.
With her silver hair teased into a French twist, Mrs. Tolbert was a recognizable figure at meetings of the Maryland Municipal League, where she served for a period as president, and at higher-profile gatherings.
Once, during a meeting of the National League of Cities, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley inquired about the population of Barnesville. It was 170, she replied.
She corrected the record, The Post reported, when it became clear that Bradley thought she meant 170,000.
Twice Mrs. Tolbert was invited to the White House. After one visit, the Baltimore Sun reported, a journalist asked if she was staying for dinner with President Ronald Reagan and Mother Teresa, who also happened to be visiting. Mrs. Tolbert said no, that she was going home to pick peas.
She identified herself as a “yellow dog Democrat,” but much of her work had little to do with political persuasion. She helped rescue lost sheep and horses, adjudicated neighborly disputes involving disorderly dogs and notified Potomac Edison of power outages in town, among other services.
“I’ve got a loud voice,” she once told The Post. “I’m home all day and I’m the one that goes out and screams at speeders in the road.”
Jim Brown, a Barnesville resident who represents cities and mayors as a lobbyist, said that he worked with Mrs. Tolbert on a campaign to persuade the Montgomery County government to install speed cameras in town.
“The respect with which county officials held her gave us a huge leg up,” Brown said in an interview. They ultimately prevailed and succeeded in slowing the speeding commuters who used Barnesville Road to avoid a congested portion of Interstate 270.
Mrs. Tolbert was credited with providing steady leadership through the droughts that threatened to cripple Barnesville homes that relied on wells for water.
Cherry Barr, a Barnesville resident since 1978, recalled one season that was “tinder dry.” When sparks on the nearby train tracks began to ignite small fires, Mrs. Tolbert instructed the families in town to bring their young children to her house, where she watched them until the flames were extinguished.
Mrs. Tolbert was particularly proud of her record safeguarding the zoning regulations that had maintained Barnesville’s small-town character. In the 1960s, she told The Post, she kept out a convenience store, because “we don’t allow that sort of thing.” She was less successful years later in an effort to block the construction of a trash incinerator in the nearby community of Dickerson.
“I guess I just have a very strong sense of history and a stronger sense of community,” she told The Post. “I hope we can maintain a rural flavor for future generations, because they aren’t going to have any concept, unless they read in history books, about small towns. Well, of course, everybody can go and take a look at Williamsburg, but that’s not real life.”
Elizabeth Ray Hays was born Dec. 5, 1925. Her father, a descendent of the surveyor of Barnesville in the 1700s, was a dairy farmer, and her mother was a schoolteacher.
Mrs. Tolbert graduated in 1942 from what is now St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She attended the District’s Garfield Hospital nursing school but had to drop out after contracting pneumonia, her daughter said.
She married in 1946 and accompanied her husband, Samuel H. Tolbert, on Air Force assignments in Europe and across the United States before running for mayor of Barnesville. She told The Post that she had come “home to roost.”
Mrs. Tolbert represented the third generation in her father’s family to serve as mayor, according to the Sun, and was the first woman in the family to hold the job. She didn’t seem to make much of the latter distinction.
“I am not a bra-burning women’s libber,” she told The Post. “I enjoy being the mayor but I don’t think I’m doing any better job than a man can do.”
Her husband, who retired as an Air Force colonel, died in 1981. Survivors include four children, Eleanor Lawrence of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Frederick Tolbert of Germantown, Md., Richard Tolbert of Barnesville and John Tolbert of Maui, Hawaii; a sister, Mary White Lok of Barnesville; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Tolbert took pride in the reputation she had built even beyond her small community.
“Sometimes a few of the larger city mayors take the attitude, ‘What does this country woman know?’ ” Mrs. Tolbert told The Post.
“I’ve learned a lot of things from big-city mayors,” she continued. “I’ve learned a lot of things I don’t want to happen to my town.”