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Elkton chapel offers short and sweet weddings

MarriageWeddings

It was the summer of 1964, and Harry Williams was in a hurry.

One Monday, the 21-year-old asked his girlfriend, Charlotte, to marry him. They were in love and couldn't wait to get married, he remembers. They said "I do" that Saturday.

Fifty years later, the couple returned to the place they exchanged vows on that June day. Today, the Historic Little Wedding Chapel in Elkton is the last remnant of what was once a booming wedding industry in this Cecil County town off U.S. 40.

"He's been an amazing husband," Charlotte Williams, now 68, said on a recent Saturday, when they took a private bus filled with family members from New Jersey to Maryland to renew their vows.

See pictures of weddings and vow renewals in Elkton.

At one time, thousands of couples married each year in Elkton — once called the marriage capital of the East Coast — drawn by Maryland's undemanding marriage license rules.

In the early 20th century, its location near the Delaware border drew couples from out of state, with the town having easy access to both New Jersey and Pennsylvania. "Marriage solicitors" once greeted the buses and trains as they arrived, and billboards advertised wedding services.

But in 1939, the state imposed a 48-hour waiting period for couples wanting to marry, which cut the number of weddings in Elkton. The industry peaked around then, with about 16,000 weddings a year.

Today, the stone building across the street from the county courthouse is the last chapel in town, the setting for about 200 marriage ceremonies a year.

"People aren't getting married like they used to," said chapel owner and minister, the Rev. Frank Smith. "There's not that pressure."

In the decades since the Williamses exchanged vows, the marriage rate in American has plummeted. People are getting married older. More Americans are divorced, and more remarry. In Maryland and 18 other states, gay couples can now marry legally.

When Smith's wife, Barbara, purchased the chapel in 1980, approximately 1,400 couples married there annually, he said.

The Elkton wedding industry was already waning when the Williamses were married, but the town still had a reputation for matrimony. The same month the couple got married, The Baltimore Sun reported that Elkton remained a popular choice for weddings, with the 48-hour waiting period being shorter than in some nearby states, "and no blood test or witness is required." That year, Maryland had ended a requirement that people marry in religious ceremonies, legalizing civil ceremonies.

See archived pictures from the Elkton wedding chapel.

While the ceremonies at the Historic Little Wedding Chapel are brief, "we take weddings very seriously here," Smith said. Many still know the chapel as a romantic wedding spot.

In 1947, it cost about $10 to get married in Elkton, according to a newspaper article at the time. Today, the chapel charges about $150 to $400, depending on the ceremony, Smith said.

Celebrities including baseball player Willie Mays and singer Billie Holiday were married at the chapel, Smith said. Framed photos, newspaper articles and letters from clients adorn the walls. The Smiths put the chapel up for sale a few years ago, but no buyers were interested in keeping the tradition alive.

Frank Smith, who has been performing marriage ceremonies for 18 years, lives in the building now. It was too hard to stay in his old house after Barbara's death last year. The chapel comforts him.

"This is a sort of refuge here," he said. "The chapel has a lot of good vibes."

He has performed about 6,000 marriages in those two decades, he estimated. On the day the Williamses renewed their vows, Smith also officiated at the wedding of Theresa Schirling, 52, and Mark Walls Sr., 51, of Chestertown.

Years ago, Schirling's mother was married in this chapel, she said.

"It's not like just going to the courthouse," Schirling said. "This is very personal."

In a room upstairs before the ceremony, she stood before an arched window, dressed in a strapless gown with beads that glittered in the sunlight as her daughter, 21-year-old Kori, looked on.

When Schirling married her first husband at his home when she was 25, she wore a white business suit.

"I've always wanted to have a wedding dress," she said.

The diversity of couples is what makes the job fun, wedding photographer Lisa Bush said.

"I love that everyone we have is different," Bush said. "You have the white dress, you have the motorcycle people."

Schirling and Walls met through an online dating site about a year ago. It's her second marriage, his third.

"He's just a very down-to-earth person that makes me laugh," Schirling said of her groom. "I tell him third time's a charm."

The Williamses met as children, growing up in Runnemede, N.J. She was 12 when they met, and he was 15. They lived four houses apart.

Charlotte Williams knew she would marry Harry from the time she was a little girl, said her sister, Debbie Kline. Since they wed, their marriage has been an inspiration for the entire family, she said.

"I wanted my marriage to be just like hers," Kline said.

Today, they have a daughter, Donna Renner, and two granddaughters, Mandy and Stephanie Toton.

The secret to a long-lasting marriage, Charlotte said, is "to keep your love new and fresh."

"A lot of people don't work at it," she said. "We take time for each other … Our family is very important, but sometimes we pull back, and it's just the two of us."

Fifty years later, she said, she still thinks of Harry as her boyfriend.

"I love him more today," she said.

Read more Postcards from U.S. 40.

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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If you go

Historic Little Wedding Chapel is at 142 E. Main St. in Elkton. Weddings are performed seven days a week, by appointment. Office hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For information, call 410-398-3640.

About the series

Postcards from U.S. 40 is a series of occasional articles taking readers on a summer road trip along the historic highway that stretches 220 miles across Maryland. Have a suggestion for where we should go next? Tell us about it at baltimoresun.com/US40Share. Follow the series at baltimoresun.com/postcards.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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