By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun
6:28 PM EST, December 28, 2011
The 19th-century stone mansion for sale on Elkton's Main Street offers an impressive list of features: numerous bedrooms and baths, as well as six fireplaces. But there's much more: a fully appointed wedding chapel filled with decades of memories — and even some reservations for next Valentine's Day.
Owners Frank and Barbara Smith hope a buyer will retain the chapel, the last remnant of the bustling marriage business that once defined this town on Maryland's northern border. But they also realize that the site, across the street from the Cecil County courthouse, would be a prime location for lawyers' offices.
"I am so worried we will lose this tradition, but we have to sell," said Barbara Smith, a lifelong Elkton resident who, at 80, is ready to forsake weddings. "We are the only one left, in a historic building with a historic sign out front, and our painting hangs in the Annapolis State House. We hope to find someone interested in keeping the building as a chapel."
Frank Smith, Barbara's husband of 15 years, handles the arrangements now, but, he, too, is ready to retire. He has officiated at more than 6,000 weddings, including one at which the ring bearer, a 180-pound Great Dane stood on its hind legs, placed its front paws on his shoulders and licked his face as he led the couple through their vows.
The Smiths are asking $350,000 for the four-story building and will toss in all wedding accouterments, down to the dainty lace curtains with rosebud tie-backs and the overflowing silk flower arrangements.
"We will leave whatever the buyer wants: definitely the pews, altar, seasonal decorations," he said. "They could be open for business the day they settle."
About 15 chapels, including one in the back of a barbershop, once lined Main Street, staffed by a platoon of ministers. The lack of requirements — no waiting period, no blood tests and no witnesses — drew celebrities and ordinary folks.
The famous brides and grooms include actors Cornel Wilde and Joan Fontaine, songstress Billie Holiday, John and Martha Mitchell of Watergate notoriety, evangelist and sometime presidential candidate Pat Robertson, and baseball legend Willie Mays. There's even an unconfirmed report of Babe Ruth's nuptials.
And the town's distinction spread through movies such as the Oscar-winning "Philadelphia Story," in which James Stewart beseeched Katherine Hepburn to run away with him to Elkton.
But business has waned considerably over the years.
Last week, Elaine Dunn and Michael Christopher were wed in the same small chapel her mother and grandmother chose for their weddings. All three brides walked slowly down a sweeping staircase from a spacious second-story dressing room and into the parlor that is Elkton's last Wedding Chapel.
As grandmother Ada Allison, who married on Dec. 9, 1960, and mother Susan Pennock waited for the bride, they reminisced.
"Martha Raye got married here in the morning, and I followed right after her," said Allison, 96, referring to a comedienne popular in the 1950s. "I don't know how long she kept her husband, but I was married 29 years."
For Pennock, a widow after 37 years of marriage, the day was bittersweet and her first time back to the chapel on Elkton's Main Street since her own wedding in 1971.
"It hasn't changed much," she said.
Sometime early last century, the then owners of 142 East Main converted a room into a chapel with pews and an oak altar that remain today. Even when Maryland enacted a two-day waiting period between license and ceremony, elopers still chose Elkton, and it remained, in the pre-Vegas era, the marriage mecca of the entire East Coast.
Barbara Smith purchased the building in 1975, and Frank joined her in the business when they, too, eloped — to Santa Barbara, Calif.
"We survived, and so did Colonial Jewelers and Edwards Tuxedos," Frank Smith said. "That's about it. Now we have law offices, tattoo parlors and bail bondsmen. If we close, that's the end of the wedding business."
Not exactly the end, but definitely the demise of a more church-like option. Just across the street, the courthouse nuptials will go on. Janice Potts, deputy clerk of the courts for nearly 30 years, registered 100 marriages in November, personally performing about 75 of them. There were 83 weddings at the courthouse on Valentine's Day, twice the number at the chapel.
"I guess we will pick up their business," Potts said. "The Smiths are good friends of mine. It is sad when any business closes."
The courthouse's $60 fees have hurt business, too, the Smiths said. Rent for chapel is $75 and the wedding is another $125, and then there's cost for photos. Still, some, like the Christophers, want the atmosphere and tradition.
"We are country folks, not into that big formal stuff," said the new Mrs. Christopher. "But we wanted something more than the courthouse, and my grandmother wanted us married here. And this is the anniversary of the day we met 17 years ago."
Their courtship is not the record. Frank Smith officiated at one wedding at which they couple had known each other 47 years and arrived at the ceremony with a great-grandchild.
Marriage is declining nationwide, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data. In 1960, when Allison married her second husband, 72 percent of all adults were married. That figure has fallen to 51 percent today and appears to be on a steady decline, researchers said.
The Smiths used to conduct about 750 weddings a year, with many 20-wedding Saturdays. Now they average about 10 a month. "Boomers had fewer children, and they are waiting later and later to marry," Frank Smith said.
Elaine and Michael Christopher are 43 and 54 respectively. All her grandmother wanted for Christmas was their wedding in the Elkton chapel.
"She usually gets what she wants," said Elaine Christopher.
They are nowhere near the oldest couple to come to the chapel. That goes to a 96-year-old groom and his 92-year-old bride, who drove to Elkton twice from Winchester, Va., once for the license and again for the wedding.
The Smiths have no computer and no way to keep track of who is still married. He works at a wicker desk about six hours a day, mostly answering phones. After 6,000 weddings, he said he usually knows which will last.
"Some you know right away should not be together, but the majority seem just right," he said.
And the Smiths have never canceled a wedding for weather or illness.
"No bride was ever left at the altar here," he said. "We have had a few really late grooms."
One bride waited almost an hour, only to have an ambulance deliver the groom, who had been injured in a motorcycle accident on the way to his wedding. The crew carried him in on a stretcher, stayed for the quick ceremony and then took him and his new wife to the hospital.
A wedding takes about 15 minutes, and Smith delivers the words with deep sincerity.
"I stress love, personal responsibility and respect," he said. "I put feeling into it and I make each one special. You can't act like it's a chore. I make it comfortable. They never feel rushed."
The Smiths still have business, often from couples wanting to renew their vows in the place where they first voiced them. Last Valentine's Day, 42 couples wed, the last at 9:30 p.m., and 15 chose 11-11-11. Eight have already scheduled Valentine's Day nuptials for 2012, even though it falls on a Tuesday. Smith has received inquiries about 1-12-12, and if he is still in business, he figures 12-12-12 will be a busy day.
Harlan C. Williams, a longtime friend, has listed the property and sees its potential, but more likely as a law office. "It has quite a history and its stone front is imposing," Williams said. "But it may not be bringing in the income to justify the price."
Frank Smith said the home and business would be perfect for a semi-retired couple. And, think of the pluses, he said. Of course, they would have to put in a kitchen.
"Couples are happy, joyful when they leave here," he said. "It feels nice to get them started."
He still applauds, when he tells the groom, "You may kiss your bride."
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