"Leap" of faith: Strato Cleaners opened in WR on leap day 1960

WARNER ROBINS — They had a celebration Monday afternoon at Strato Cleaners. The mayor and other elected officials were there. A ribbon was cut. The room was full of well-wishers.

Strato turned 50 on the first day of March. Don’t get too technical about the date. It was really an extended February.

The dry cleaners — one of the city’s oldest businesses still operating in the same location — actually opened its doors Feb. 29, 1960.

That was a leap year, so anniversaries roll around once every four years. The folks at Strato like to joke they’ve only had 12.5 birthdays. Still not even a teenager.

It was somewhat appropriate that Mary Edenfield Gibbs and her husband, the late Billy Edenfield, opened the store on Leap Year’s Day. It was a giant leap of faith to get into the dry cleaning business in the first place. They knew so little about it.

Billy was a telegraph operator for the Central Georgia Railroad. Mary worked as a secretary for Reynold Tobacco in Macon. They met at a square dance at Durr’s Lake and married in 1952.

In 1960, they sold their house in Macon, purchased some used equipment and constructed a building on Watson Boulevard. In those days, Watson was a two-lane road. They set up shop at the far end of the business district.

“If you went straight,’’ said Mary, “you would end up in a field of sage brush.’’

They agonized over what to call the business. There were too many letters in “Edenfield,’’ especially with the high cost of neon signs.

So they enlisted the help of a friend, cartoonist Buzz Holland from Macon, and came up with the name “Strato.’’

It was short for “Stratosphere.’’ Mary considered it the perfect conversation piece. It fit right in with all those big planes taking off at Robins Air Force Base, just 3 miles east down the boulevard.

The night before the store opened in 1960, Mary stood on a ladder in the cold and washed the jalousie windows.

The next morning, she stood at those spotless windows, waiting for the first customer to show up.

“I kept saying, ‘We’re open, everybody!’ ’’ she said.

Finally, in walked Helen Cason, who would become the answer to a local trivia question — the first Strato customer.

At the end of the day, Mary went to the bank and made the store’s first deposit of $2.40.

It was a start.

“Bill and I used to laugh that if we had known all the obstacles in front of us we probably would have run like turkeys,’’ she said. “But God has really blessed our family in this business.’’

The unique name intrigued customers, too. For years, Mary would answer to “Mrs. Strato.’’

In 1973, a men’s clothing store was added and, two years later, a tuxedo rental service. In 1991, the store was remodeled.

Strato survived the paving and widening of Watson Boulevard, when cars would get stuck in the mud. They managed to — pardon the pun — press on through the evolution of double-knit, polyester and wash-and-wear, which nearly spelled the end of the dry cleaning industry.

Bill died in 1996, three months after being diagnosed with cancer. He had served as both chairman of the Houston County Board of Education and chairman of Warner Robins Planning and Zoning.

Mary retired in 1998 but is still involved in the business. In 2000, she married Jim Gibbs, a close friend of her husband.

The four Edenfield children worked in the store as teenagers.

Son Greg Edenfield, daughter Vicki Lacey and son-in-law Sebie Lacey (drummer of Stillwater band fame) have kept the business in the family.

A second location has opened on Ga. 247 in Bonaire.

In two more years, Strato will either be 52 or 13. It all depends on whether you look before you leap.

Reach Gris at 744-4275 or