By Marshall S. Berdan
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 13, 2002
Like most first-time brides-to-be, Roberta Ford is optimistic, nervously optimistic. A diminutive 45-year-old schoolteacher who became engaged on Christmas Eve, she wants "a proper wedding, but not a big one."
She's in the right place. Elkton, Md., an otherwise unassuming little town on the northern tip of the Chesapeake Bay, is a place that knows small weddings, that indeed used to be famous for them. Barbara Smith, owner of Elkton's well-worn Little Wedding Chapel, assures Ford with smooth practice. She is used to brides. "Intimate like a French restaurant," she purrs, going on to describe the standard $400 package: flowers, 24 photos and a videotape recording.
If $400 sounds like a lot for a 15-minute ceremony at a high-volume marriage mill, Ford can always go across the street for a real Elkton quickie, $60 for a license and ceremony in the basement of the Cecil County Courthouse. These days, the Elkton marriage market is split between those who want it done quickly and quietly at the courthouse and those who want it done quickly and with a modicum of pomp at Smith's chapel. The courthouse gets more than two-thirds of the trade.
There used to be many more choices. The competition for brides and grooms was intense here during its heyday in the '20s and '30s, when the Little Wedding Chapel was just one of 15 private chapels and Elkton was the elopement capital of the East Coast. Today, however, the chapel, housed in its two-story, 200-year-old stone building, is the only one left. Its neighbors are all law offices and bail bondsmen.
"They used to line up down the street," says Smith, an affable, loquacious 71-year-old former dancer. "We used to do as many as 1,000 a year until just a couple of years ago."
These days Elkton comes across as just another small town, tethered to the concrete umbilical cord of I-95. The outfield fence at the David K. Williams Little League Field is adorned with bright, home-stenciled advertisements from local merchants, and 50 cents will buy you a cupcake (with sprinkles) at the Williams Bakery on still unmetered Main Street, where you can park free for two hours.
And two hours is about all it takes to do the traditional Elkton thing. It all started in 1913 when Delaware passed mandatory matrimonial waiting and public notification laws. Meanwhile Maryland -- the "Free State" -- imposed neither waiting period nor residency requirement. Those Delaware moralists should have just put up a sign reading "This Way to Elkton."
As the most northeasterly county seat in Maryland, Elkton became the roadside chapel of choice for those who chose to marry in haste from throughout the Northeast. From just over 100 marriages per year at the turn of the century, tiny Elkton was soon cranking out well over 10,000 newlyweds a year -- the vast majority from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania -- during the 1920s and '30s. It became known as "America's Gretna Green."
What Maryland did require, though, was a church service. Thus sprang into business Elkton's notorious parcel of "marrying parsons," who, for a few bucks, would gladly tie a quick knot. In those days, the train and bus stations were staked out by aggressive cabbies, who scoured arrivals for those tell-tale sheepish looks, and then pounced with offers for special "package deals."
It was a convenience that even the mighty took advantage of. Smith remembers the October evening in 1928 when her aunt rushed to the train station to pick up band leader Glenn Miller and his fiancee. Alas, despite the courthouse's 7 p.m. closing time, they were five minutes too late to get their license, and the Millers-to-be were forced to return to New York empty-fingered.
But plenty of celebrities did make it to the small, six-pewed chapel where garlands of flowers, both real and artificial, are still always at the ready. Cornel Wilde, Joan Fontaine, Debbie Reynolds, Martha Raye, John and Martha Mitchell, and even the Rev. Pat Robertson were all married right here, with scores of others taking their own conjugal vows elsewhere on East Main Street.
Elkton's 25-year bridal end-run came to a screeching halt in 1938 when the state's elected officials, embarrassed by the tawdry spectacle that Elkton had become, sponsored a statewide referendum mandating a 48-hour waiting period.
Though Cecil County voted overwhelmingly against it, the measure passed, and the last of Elkton's few-questions-asked hitchings took place on Dec. 7, 1938.
By then, however, Elkton's reputation as the place to elope had been firmly established in the regional psyche. The new law just made hot-to-trotters slow down to a canter.
"These days we have to bank on tradition," Smith says. "But the recent dropping of the blood test requirement in Pennsylvania and New Jersey has really hurt us." So has competition from Las Vegas and the Caribbean, which now lure latter-day elopers even farther away with their own package deals. But tradition is still worth something: in Smith's case, 500 or so nondenominational weddings a year, the majority of them first-timers, including a dozen booked for tomorrow, Valentine's Day.
Across the street at the courthouse, Elkton's lingering reputation is even more evident. Janice A. Potts, the personality-plus Cecil County deputy clerk who has been conducting the civil ceremonies for the last 19 years, expects as many as 30 couples to follow her up the very short aisle. (Her personal best: 83 on Valentine's Day 1989.) During her tenure, she has united some 35,000 couples, roughly two-thirds of them "remarriages," as second, third and fourth marriages are delicately known in the trade.
Outside her basement office, a sign lists the going rates -- $30 for the license and $30 for the five-minute civil ceremony. No checks. She's in between ceremonies: A middle-aged couple, he a widower, she a divorcee, from Mountville, Pa., has just left while the friends and family of a pair of local first-timers, barely 20, fidget nervously on two hallway benches. Inside the gold-curtained municipal "chapel," a standard speaker's podium marks the spot where the "I do's" are exchanged.
"I do roughly 10 to 15 a day, five days a week, with Fridays always being the busiest," Potts says. Most of the ceremonies, she admits, are essentially the same. But from the desk drawer, she pulls out the official reminders of some that stand out, including the one that she performed on Feb. 9, 1989, for basketball superstar Charles Barkley, then playing with the Philadelphia 76ers, and the one done on Valentine's Day 1956 (long before Potts's time) for baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays. "And to the best of my knowledge," she notes, "they are both still married."
Most couples, their troth pledged, probably wasted little time in getting back on the road to begin their honeymoon, as Elkton is no Niagara Falls. But neither is it devoid of interest. Its status as the northernmost port on the Chesapeake made Elkton a strategic crossroads of the Revolution. Washington and Lafayette passed through here repeatedly, as did British Gen. Howe en route to his ignominious defeat at the Battle of the Brandywine in 1775.
Some of Elkton's history is on display just down the street from the old chapel row at the Historical Society of Cecil County, where septuagenarian Helen McKinney gives tours of the former bank. Down the hallway from the restored Early American Kitchen, an open storage room is crowded with cardboard boxes marked "marriage licenses."
"Overflow from the courthouse," McKinney says.
Tomorrow, Roberta Ford -- the 45-year-old schoolteacher -- will be one of more than a score of new Elkton brides to add their wedding documents to the town's vast matrimonial archive. But according to chapel owner Smith, it is the day after Valentine's that her phones really start ringing.