Elk Point’s Musical Mayor Isabel Trobaugh

In a small church in the small city of Elk Point, a talented yet humble woman plays her favorite hymn, “How Great Thou Art,” on a piano, not singing with words, but with certainly with her soul.

“I like my hymns with a little beat. I play it the way I feel,” she remarks. “God gave me this talent to use, so I’m using it.”

At 81 years old, Isabel Trobaugh has been tickling the ivories just about her entire life without ever taking a single lesson.

“I don’t ever remember learning to play, and when I say that, people look at me like I’m out of my tree, and I could be!” said Trobaugh. “My mother said I started playing at the age of three-and-a-half. My sister took lessons, and she’d practice and practice, and I’d just climb up on the stool and play anything she played.”

To this day, she doesn’t read a note on a page. She plays by ear and by heart.

“Sometimes I can get a little jazzy in church, and that’s ok!” she laughed.

Her talents landed her the South Dakota Country Music Hall of Fame back in 2015 for her album, fittingly titled “Isabel’s Favorites,” with more than a dozen of her favorite hymns and country music covers from artists like Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard and more.

“I thought everybody was crazy,” she said. “This is really honest, because I didn’t really feel like I had the talent, because I had only been playing on the circuit for two years, maybe it was less. I know a lot of these people out here have been playing for a long, long time and don’t have the honor.”

That’s not the only honor she’s been given. She says her job as mayor is a privilege, too.

“I ran for council, and I got on, and about a year and a half the mayor decided he was going to resign, he wasn’t going to be mayor anymore. I thought, ‘Well, I could do that!’” recalled Trobaugh. “So I ran, and I was elected.”

That was back in 1996—yes, that’s two decades ago—and she’s become Elk Point’s longest serving mayor and first female mayor.  

“It’s a great honor that the people would want me because I feel that I came from the wrong side of the tracks, and I really did,” she said. “I mean, we had no money, and to be allowed to serve the people like I am allowed to do, it’s a great honor.”

Under her watch, Elk Point has reconstructed Main Street, gotten a new water treatment facility and water tower, upgraded street sweepers, and three new subdivisions, just to name a few accomplishments.

She says she’s proud to serve her community because her community makes her proud by stepping up to the plate when things need to get done.

“They did so much in this community because we don’t have a lot of tax base to operate with, but, like the community center that was built about three years ago, over 70 percent volunteer labor.”

Add the baseball fields and the city park to that list of things mostly done by volunteers.

This past January, Trobaugh was honored once again, this time by the South Dakota legislature with House Commemoration 1002 recognizing her service to Elk Point and to the state of South Dakota.

“Well, I did a little bit of everything, and I’m involved in a lot of things,” she said. “There’s some things that I would still like to see in the state of South Dakota, and they know that I’m going to keep fighting for them as long as I can stand—that’s what I told them!”

For the last 30 years she’s been working on getting basic education for disabled adults across the state who want to learn to read and write.

“I think they deserve the right to some education,” said Trobaugh. “They are starting to do this in Vermillion. They started last summer, and I’m very proud of that fact.”

Despite her busy schedule, she always takes the time to unwind with a few tunes.

“Follow your heart, follow your gut. Do what you feel is right for you. Some people are not going to agree with that, but it’s your life. You only have one to live. If you can, live it your way,” she said.

A little wisdom to, like HC 1002 says, “as much as possible, follow the pattern of the life of Isabel.”