Mass wedding recalls Elkton's claim to fame

Seventy years ago, the small town of Elkton was the marriage capital of the East Coast. Wedding chapels lined Main Street like a miniature Las Vegas strip (minus the casinos, of course).

Today, the Historic Little Wedding Chapel is Elkton's sole remaining chapel. Couples can also be married by the Deputy Clerk of Courts at the Cecil County Courthouse.

But the number of prospective brides and grooms choosing either of these options is a far cry from the thousands who flocked to Elkton during the town's marrying heyday.

On June 10, Elkton hopes to recall some of its lost glory when the town marks "National Marriage Day" with a mass wedding.

Couples who would like to marry or renew their vows must make a reservation by June 7. If the weather is nice, the 7 p.m. wedding will be held, according to tradition, outside on the Chamber of Commerce lawn at the corner of North and Main streets. If skies are threatening, the ceremony will be moved inside the town Visitor's Center.

The $40 fee includes a wedding reception - complete with champagne and cake - and a horse-drawn carriage ride through the town for each couple.

Mary Jo Jablonski, a manager with the Elkton Chamber of Commerce and Alliance, said Elkton started celebrating National Marriage Day about 50 years ago. Officials have hosted as many as 14 couples at one ceremony. But that's nothing compared to the number of weddings that used to be held in Elkton each year.

Located in Maryland's northeast corner near Pennsylvania and Delaware, Elkton benefited from its strategic location as well as the state's lax marriage laws. Brides and grooms from around the region - especially those who lived in areas with more stringent regulations - got to Elkton any way they could in order to be married.

It wasn't just average Janes and Joes either, notes Jablonski. According to alliance records, Babe Ruth was married in Elkton. So were slugger Willie Mays, blues singer Billie Holiday and actress Joan Fontaine. (More recently, former basketball player Charles Barkley said his vows there.)

Until 1938, there was no waiting period for a Cecil County marriage license. No blood tests had to be done. No witnesses were required, either.

"You could come here, get married and leave," explains Jablonski. "A lot of people took the train in, and they'd take a taxi from the train station right to the courthouse."

But then the state changed its marriage laws. All jurisdictions were required to make couples wait two days after a marriage license was issued before they could wed.

According to Cecil County records, 2,344 wedding ceremonies were performed in Elkton in October 1938. By December of that year - when the waiting period went into effect - the number of ceremonies had dropped to 277.

Cecil County Deputy Clerk of Courts Janice Potts had issued 562 wedding licenses from January through April of this year. Potts said that number has declined since she first took her position more than 20 years ago.

"When I first came here, on Fridays it wouldn't be unusual if I did 35 or 40 weddings," Potts says. "Now it's half that.

"One Valentine's Day, we did 83 weddings," she recalls. "It was unreal. But we'll never see that again."

Potts says couples who wish to marry in the mass wedding on June 10 must apply for a Cecil County wedding license by the close of business (4 p.m.) June 8.

Both parties must be present when the license application is made. The license costs $30, cash only. Applicants age 20 and younger must show a birth certificate. Other applicants may show a driver's license or other state identification.

Applicants who have been divorced or widowed in the past six months must bring a copy of their divorce decree or spouse's death certificate. Potts says applicants have six months to use their license - good to know in case someone gets cold feet.

Jablonski says the Marriage Day ceremony tends to include couples who are renewing their vows after being married in Elkton years earlier. In recent years, the alliance has also married a couple in their late 70s as well as a bride and groom who brought 40 guests and held their own reception at a nearby restaurant.

With Elkton's wedding history, the town is prepared to deal with last-minute requests, Jablonski says. She's seen grooms rent tuxedos at the downtown menswear shop and couples stop at the jeweler up the street for wedding bands or other gifts. Many couples get photos taken in the "Wedding Garden" outside the courthouse.

Popular spots for a post-wedding meal include the Howard House (101 W. Main St., 410-398-4646) and Schaefer's New Canal House Restaurant (at Bank Street and the canal in nearby Chesapeake City, 410-885-2200).

Getting there

Take Interstate 95 North to Route 272 South. Take Route 272 to U.S. 40 toward North East and Elk Neck State Park. Follow U.S. 40 for about six miles to a left on Landing Lane. Then take a right on Main Street.

More information

Call the Elkton Chamber of Commerce and Alliance at 410-398-5076. On the Internet, visit www.elktonalliance.org and www.seececil.org. For further information about Cecil County marriage licenses, call 410-996-5376. To plan a wedding at the Historic Little Wedding Chapel, call 410-398-3640.