Barbara and Frank Smith understand a couple in love's urge to get married quickly. They eloped themselves seven years ago. More than that, though, quick - but tasteful - weddings are their business. At the Historic Little Wedding Chapel in Elkton, they marry more than 300 couples a year, keeping alive a tradition that once made the little town the "Marriage Capital of the World."
Until 1938, when Maryland first imposed a two-day waiting period on weddings, Elkton - close by both Pennsylvania and Delaware - was the East Coast's quick-marriage destination: There were more than a dozen chapels, and many ministers, innkeepers and even taxi drivers earned a living from the more than 12,000 weddings a year. Now the Smiths' 1813 stone building on Main Street houses Elkton's last wedding chapel, making it a nostalgic draw for romantic couples. And no day is busier than Valentine's Day.
This year, there were 10 ceremonies, all officiated by Frank Smith. He figures about two-thirds of his clients are first-timers, about a third divorced or widowed; occasionally there's a renewal of vows. In time-honored wedding chapel tradition, he's a non-denominational minister, but he takes his work seriously. "We're trying to make this historic, not Las Vegas-like," says Frank, 55. "My ceremonies stress personal responsibility, love, respect, and I mention God a few times."
"We want to make it as charming, cozy and romantic as we can," said Barbara Smith, 71. For $375 ($495 on weekends, holidays and evenings) couples get a 12-minute ceremony with candlelight, music and decorations, 24 photos, a video, a printed wedding ceremony and wallet-sized licenses. For Valentine's Day, Frank arranged for each couple to get a heart-shaped brownie cake from the baker down the street.
The first Valentine's Day wedding was of Sharon Wright, 41, and Barry Thompson, 34. After Sharon and Barry came Lee Anne Branum and Bernie Eshleman, then Veronica Ganzman and Skip Roland, and so on until 8 p.m., when the Smiths could finally call it a night.
As for their own nuptials back in 1995, the Smiths indeed followed local tradition by eloping, but went a little farther than the town limits - to Santa Barbara, Calif. As in Elkton on Valentine's Day, love is where you find it.