ELKTON, MD., OCT. 8 -- When GOP presidential candidate Marion G. (Pat) Robertson whipped through this small northeast Maryland town in August 1954 it was for a quick marriage. He was in good company.
Notables including baseball star Willie Mays, actress Joan Fontaine and Watergate-era Attorney General John N. Mitchell also entered the state of matrimony here -- the nation's so-called marriage capital where thousands of couples have flocked for generations for its easy access and quick no-questions-asked delivery of services.
Some came here because they were in trouble, and some because they were in love.
Robertson, a Yale-educated television evangelist, has been backtracking over campaign-related statements recently, correcting and clarifying several, including references to his marriage in 1954.
Robertson follows a long stream of nuptial seekers to this town. While boasting a population of only 7,500, Elkton in the year ending last June processed 3,404 marriage licenses, most for couples from out of state, according to Cecil County Court records. Of that total, 1,944 got married in the courthouse.
On a good day, the courthouse will have 15 to 20 weddings.
"I've seen everything from long dresses to blue jeans," said Deputy Clerk Donna L. Dennis. " . . . Some drop down on their knees after the ceremony and pray."
Another deputy clerk, Janice A. Potts, Dennis and Clerk Erma M. Keetley have seen them all -- old and young, businessmen, construction workers, motorcycle gang members and people in wheelchairs.
The oldest was a woman in her nineties, Dennis recalled, and the youngest a girl of 13.
"When they're that young," Dennis said, "they have to be pregnant and have parental consent."
Here, as in other Maryland counties, couples do not need a blood test or witnesses and must wait only 48 hours between applying for a license and getting married. The ceremony, conducted in a small room festooned with an American flag and plastic ferns, takes about two minutes.
"I try to give them the best service," said Potts, who has been marrying people for five years. "It's an important step in their lives."
She and other clerks acknowledge some couples come from far afield to Elkton for a quick wedding because the woman is pregnant or to escape disapproving families.
But others come simply because they decided on the spur of the moment to get married.
Today was a slow day. Three couples, from Canada, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, picked up their licenses and walked across the hall to the marriage ceremony room to tie the knot.
There Potts presided, giving a motherly smile to the couples at each ceremony.
One of the couples, David and Elsie Hughson of Collingswood, N.J., were all smiles afterward.
"If you're going to get married in Maryland, Elkton's the place to go," said David Hughson, 45, a jet engine parts manufacturer.
Dressed in a trim three-piece gray-checked suit, he said New Jersey law requires a time-consuming blood test and a three-day wait.
Elsie Hughson, 52, wearing a black skirt and fur jacket, said her sister-in-law got married in Elkton years ago, "and we've just always known this is where you could go."
Indeed, Elkton has been touted as a marriage mill for most of this century. Straddling Rte. 40 and I-95, as well as Amtrak's Washington-New York rail line, it has always been easily reached and is the first county seat for couples coming in from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and points north.
In years past, Elkton had a brisk trade in round-the-clock "parson marriages" -- some say as many as 12,000 a year -- with ministers advertising weekend rates on billboards and competing for customers at the old railroad station, now closed.
Then, in 1964, the state dropped the requirement that couples be married in religious ceremonies or by justices of the peace and instituted optional civil weddings in the county courthouse.
Most of the dozen or so storefront chapels closed down, and only one remains today -- the Little Wedding Chapel, a faded building across the street from the courthouse.
Owner Barbara Foster says she still gets 15 to 20 couples a week for the 10-minute nonsectarian ceremony. The rates: $45 during weekdays, $85 at night or on weekends.
The county charges $30 for its ceremony. That fee, plus a $20 charge for all license applications generated more than $126,000 in revenue for Cecil County last year.
Marriage records show numerous well-known figures have come to Elkton at one time or another. Among them were Joan Fontaine (in 1964, her fourth marriage), Willie Mays (1956), John and Martha Mitchell (1957), actor Burt Lahr (1940), and former Philadelphia Phillies catcher John B. Wockenfuss (1986).
As for Robertson, his license shows he listed a New York City address in August 1954 and gave his occupation as "trainee" with no further explanation.
He listed his bride-to-be as Delia Elmer of Columbus, Ohio.
The records show he applied for the license at 12:55 p.m. on Aug. 25, 1954, and picked it up 48 hours and five minutes later. He and his wife were married by the Rev. R.J. Sturgill, a local Baptist minister, now dead.