TYING THE KNOT AT THE COURTHOUSE -- The marriage bureau at the Cecil County Courthouse is open from 8:30 to 4:30, Monday through Friday; it'll closed next Monday for the holiday. You must file for the license at least 48 hours before the wedding. The application fee is $1, the license is $4 for Maryland residents, $5 for others. If you want a civil ceremony at the courthouse, the fee is $10. 301/398-0200. AT THE CHAPEL -- The Little Wedding Chapel is open 9 to 4:30, Monday through Friday, and all day Saturday by appointment. A ceremony similar to Frances and Richard's costs $30 weekdays, $40 weekends. 301/398-3640.
Scenes from a marriage: It's 9:30 a.m. at the Little Wedding Chapel on Main Street in Elkton, and inside the five-room Victorian house Burnita McDaniel and the Reverend Keith (Hank) Henry wait for their first couple of the week.
The honeymoon is over for Frances and Richard, from upstate New York: They filed for a marriage license on Friday, and under Maryland law had to wait 48 hours before Reverend Hank (also a parttime Century 21 real-estate man) could make it official. So they've been to Atlantic City. They've had their fill of one-armed bandits and roulette wheels; now they're ready for a different kind of gamble.
It's Richard's second time to be married in Elkton, because, he says, "of the blood-test thing. I just can't stand needles." "That's right," Frances adds, "he can't even stand to watch me sew." Richard makes a face.
The "blood-test thing" is one of the main reasons that couples like Frances and Richard have been coming to this small Cecil County town for over 40 years to get married. There is no blood test required in Maryland, and until the late 1930s there was no waiting period, either. Elkton, first town over the Maryland line for northerners in New York and Philadelphia and only a 2 1/2-hour trip from Washington, was convenient for eager, marriage-minded couples.
Marriage was big business back then, with all the trappins of a fast-food, "over one million hitched" campaign. Billboards lined U.S. 40, advertising Elkton's marrying parsons and makeshift wedding chapels. "I seem to recall that back then, if you could get five or six people to be your congregation, you would qualify as a preacher," says John Stanley, unofficial town historian and owner of Stanley's Newstand of the carpetbag preachers who set up shop in Elkton's living rooms. "Most of those 'marryin' parsons' came up from down South. I think the taxicab companies had contracts with 'em. The cab drivers would grab couples as they got off the trains," and take them into town, where on almost every street corner living rooms served as wedding chapels. Even movie stars got married there -- Babe Ruth, Ethel Merman and David Merrick took their vows in Elkton.
The state voted to take down the signs, though, and after the waiting period became official in 1937, things slowed down in the town that had since been labeled a "marriage mill" and a "Gretna Green." Stanley remembers that "during the War, servicemen could pay 75 cents to get around the waiting requirement," but the chapels slowly began to disappear.
Elkton's reputation didn't fade quite as fast. And for that reason, marriage is still very visible there, as well as profitable. Just across the street from the Little Wedding chapel is the Cecil County courthouse, where at about the same time that Frances and Richard have ben pronounced man and wife, Leroy and Saundra stand in front of Edgar Day Moore Jr.
They've come from Philadelphia, and are one of the 60,000 or so couples he has married since he was appointed deputy clerk of the court in 1964. He is a gracious man in his mid-70s, who fits the minister mold, but who was in fact a retired postman when he took the job. The district court judge "came to me in 1964 and said, 'We've got a job for you.' I said, 'I can't marry couples, I'm a letter carrier.'" But he's been doing it ever since, at the rate of up to 25 a day. He married Joan Fontaine, whose picture sits atop one of the desks in his office, and has two scrapbooks filled with thank-you notes, postcards, newspaper clippings and of all the marriages in Elkton now," he says, on his large, red leather ledger accounts for them, one by one.
If you're considering tying the knot in Elkton, Moore's is the most economical, "no-frills" route.
Frances and Richard's wedding at the Little Wedding Chapel was more elaborate: Reverend Henry conducted a 10-minute candlelight service in the six-pew chapel, accompanied by taped organ music and 12 pictures taken by Burnita McDaniel during and after the ceremony. They were presented with an 11 x 14 mariage license, for "decorational purposes," and a coupon good for two free cocktails at a local restaurant. Frances was given the chapel's bridal gift: shampoo, washing detergent and a Harlequin romance titled This Side of Paradise.
Edgar Moore has no way of knowing exactly how many couples will visit the courthouse this Valentine's week, but he expects "it will be busy. It always has been." The wedding chapel's appointment book shows 21 couples scheduled back to back on February 14; Mrs. McDaniel says they "will be here from the time the first couple comes in until the last one leaves."
"It took us a long time to find each other," Frances said as she and her husband left the Little Wedding Chapel, "but it was worth it."