Still a few left to say, `I do'

Elkton is no longer Maryland's hot spot for quick marriage vows, but couples manage to find their way to its Little Wedding Chapel

February 11, 2007|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,sun reporter

The Rev. Frank Smith looks like the Maytag repairman as he waits for the phone to ring in the Little Wedding Chapel in Elkton. The antiquated chapel is empty, a loud kind of empty.

Yesterday, oh, what I'd give for yesterday, fills the chapel as a guy sings Tony Bennett's "When Joanna Loved Me" on the boom box in the six-pew chapel. Newspaper articles in the foyer still boast that Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Billie Holiday were married quick and easy in Elkton a long time ago. After the turn of the 20th century, the chapel was one of several that made Elkton the "Marriage Capital of the World." In the 1960s, roughly 2,000 couples were still getting married at the chapel every year, but the number has since steadily declined. These days, maybe 170 ceremonies are performed in the town's remaining chapel.

Frank Smith - whose wife, Barbara, bought the 1813 Federal-style building in 1980 - sits alone at his computer-less desk. The furniture is Victorian; the altar roses are artificial. A cassette marked Wedding March Ceremony stands by near the video recorder aimed to record the 15-minute ceremony. Couples get the videotape, a roll of pictures, and a wedding certificate suitable for framing. It's a $400 package deal during the week. Not cheap. But the chapel is running a $300 special for Valentine's Day. Two bookings so far.

At the turn of the 20th century, Maryland had no waiting period or blood test requirements, as surrounding states did. Elkton became a virtual marriage mart. People came from all over the East to this rural wedge of northern Maryland. In 1939, Marylanders voted to impose a two-day waiting period on weddings, which eventually slowed the thriving quickie marriage industry.

Couples used to line up in the chapel waiting their turn to get hitched. Today, people scour the Internet for people to marry them or fly to the islands for warm weddings, since air travel is cheaper and more prevalent. Church weddings remain popular, of course. Other folks are waiting longer to get married these days, Smith says. And you can always get married for cheaper across the street at the courthouse. All of it has cut deep into the chapel's business. That, and until 2003, it was illegal in Maryland for any business to advertise marriage ceremonies.

Yet, the Little Wedding Chapel's popularity and reputation have endured. A succession of building owners and ministers has been the caretakers of the tradition. Smith, a mail-order minister, assumed the mantle - or altar - 10 years ago and has married more than 4,000 couples.

The chapel hangs on through word-of-mouth, family tradition and Cecil County tourism links on the Internet. The county boasts the Conowingo Dam, the Elk Neck State Park, herb farms, a basket factory - and still lays claim to the Little Wedding Chapel at 142 E. Main St.

"There's still a little spark in the town regarding marriages," said Mary Jo Jablonski of the Elkton Chamber of Commerce and Alliance.

Wedding fatigue

"You do have burnout doing this," says Frank Smith. On a stinging cold morning in late January (the chapel's slowest month), he rubs his eyes and face awake. He's 59, and these last two months have been rough. His wife has been in the hospital with a serious back infection. She'll be all right, but having that to think about and run the business solo - well, the man is deservedly tired.

In fact, they want to sell the building. Time to get out of the wedding business. Maybe someone would come in and try to keep the wedding business alive, or the building probably would be converted into professional offices, Smith says. Either way, their marriage to the wedding business will end if the right buyer comes along.

"We're ready to retire," Smith says. They'd like to head to Arizona, live happily ever after, not marry people for a change.

This morning, a woman comes into the chapel. She was not married here. She is homeless and cold, and Smith does not shoo her off. "I see you are running a business here," she says, before excusing herself in hopes that a church down the street has opened its doors.

The business is at 1 p.m., when Eddie Diaz and Nereida Boyer of Pennsylvania are scheduled to be married here, the only wedding of the day. As usual, Smith expects the bride and groom by 12:45 p.m. People tend to cut it close at the Little Chapel. Why come early just to wait and get nervous? At 11:45 a.m., Smith tucks in his white dress shirt and loops his black tie around his neck. The drill has begun.

Upstairs, a gas fireplace heats a dressing room where a tilted full-length mirror waits. Downstairs, the pews and altar are from the original chapel, the floor still creaks like an old ship and a grapevine of white lights illuminate the altar, which also boasts white candles. After all, candlelight is part of the deal. There is nothing Las Vegas about the ceremony or atmosphere.

"We don't do Elvis," Smith says.

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