Elkton’s enduring symbol of a bygone era
Jan 08, 2015 04:57PM
● By Kerigan Butt
The chapel is decorated accordingly.
By Steven Hoffman
Early in the 20th century, Maryland had no waiting period for issuing marriage licenses. Couples from throughout the northeast flocked to Elkton, the first county seat south of the state line, so that they could get married without delay. Main Street was lined with independent wedding chapels to accommodate the eager elopers, and the town was filled with businesses associated with the wedding industry—jewelers, florists, and tailors. In 1936, the tiny town issued 11,791 marriage licenses. Then, two years later, Maryland instituted a 48-hour waiting period. Even so, Elkton’s tradition of being the marriage capital endured for decades. As many as 6,000 couples were tying the knot each year in Elkton as recently as the 1970s.
Today, the Historic Little Wedding Chapel at 142 East Main Street stands as an enduring symbol of a bygone era.
“Elkton is known for weddings,” explained Frank Smith, the owner of the Historic Little Wedding Chapel, during an interview at the chapel in October. Brides and grooms have been exchanging vows at The Little Wedding Chapel for 90 years, and Smith is proud of Elkton’s legacy as the marriage capital of the U.S. He is willing to do all he can to maintain the tradition. He works to preserve the charm of the two-story, 200-year-old building. He even got licensed as a non-sectarian minister years ago so that he could officiate the weddings at the chapel.
“I’ve done 6,000 weddings,” Smith explained.
Las Vegas is the place that most people associate with quick weddings, but Smith is quick to point out that, “We were here before Vegas. And we don’t do glitz here.”
What they do do are simple but heartfelt ceremonies that deliver the warm memories that a husband and wife will cherish.
“People say that there are great vibes here,” Smith said. “People love this place, which is why weddings have been held here for 90 years.”
Lisa Bush is a photographer who frequently shoots weddings at the Little Wedding Chapel. She said that Smith does his best to accommodate the bride and groom on their special day.
“It’s all about the bride and groom,” she said. “It’s a very joyous occasion. It’s so uplifting here. They are happy to be here.”
As a photographer, Bush said that she loves the moment when she sees the bride about to exchange vows.
“The brides always have twinkles in their eyes,” she said. “Every bride is beautiful.”
Bush added that the quaint atmosphere of the chapel lends itself to a beautiful ceremony that provides a memorable experience for the happy couple.
“They always say that they have a great wedding here,” Bush explained.
Smith and his late wife, Barbara, purchased the Little Wedding Chapel in 1980. Initially, she had other plans for the building.
“She bought it to put antiques here,” Smith said. While he grew up in nearby Ogletown, Del., Barbara was raised in Elkton from the age of two and she later owned a popular dance studio in town for 67 years. She quickly became enamored with the quaint charm of the chapel and its special meaning to the town and thousands of people who have been wed here. So she decided to keep the chapel alive.
“She definitely got into the tradition of it,” Smith said of his late wife.
Most of the chapel owners, Smith said, ran it for relatively brief periods of time. As the owner for more than three decades now, he believes he has the longest tenure among all the owners.
This doesn’t surprise Bush because she knows how important the chapel’s history is to Smith.
“Frank is all about tradition,” she said.
These days, Smith will perform a wedding six days a week, Monday through Saturday. He said that they do about 150 weddings a year. Some of the weddings are clustered around special days like Valentine’s Day or whenever a special date arrives on the calendar—one recent example is the 11-11-11 of Nov. 11, 2011—but usually the requests to hold weddings here are steady, if less frequent than before.
During Elkton’s glory days as a marriage capital, celebrities were among the thousands of couples who came to Cecil County for their nuptials. Now, Smith said, many of the people who decide to get married at the chapel do so because of a personal connection to the place.
“A lot of them are traditions—their parents got married here, or their grandparents,” he explained.
Others simply opt for the Little Wedding Chapel because it offers extras that aren’t available to couples who get married at the Cecil County Courthouse, which is located across the street from the chapel.
“We do a nice job here,” Smith said. “If you don’t belong to a church to get married in, this can be the next best thing.”
The chapel also is a good value for couples.
“I think people are pleasantly surprised by the value that they get for their money,” Bush said of the offerings at the chapel. That includes the photography packages that she offers to brides and grooms.
“I take more pictures than I should because I just love doing it,” she explained.
About twenty-five percent of the weddings at the chapel are small—just the man and the woman exchanging vows. Another twenty-five percent are large—with 30 or 40 people at the chapel to witness the ceremony. The other half of the weddings are somewhere in between those two extremes.
Smith said that he has seen a decline in the number of weddings even from 1980 when he became the owner. This is due in part to societal changes.
“Baby boomers didn’t have as many children as their parents,” he explained. Rising divorce rates also factor into the equation.
Even so, there will always be something special about the Historic Little Wedding Chapel. It has been featured in countless newspapers and magazines over the years. In 2002, National Geographic published a story about its history.
The chapel will always have a special place in the hearts of the thousands of couples who have been married here.
“Two or three times a week, I’ll have someone who stops in who wants to see the place again because they were married here,” Smith said. “People care about this place.”
Smith has a vow of his own when it comes to the Little Wedding Chapel. He will do what he can to keep this part of Elkton’s history alive.
“I’ll keep it going for as long as I can,” he said.
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email email@example.com.
Historic Little Wedding Chapel
142 East Main Street
Elkton, MD 21921