Love and Valentine’s Day are in the air, and this topic, although popular, seemed timely. In the early 20th century, the Cecil County town of Elkton became known as the East Coast’s version of England’s Gretna Green. For all you Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice fans, Gretna Green is where Elizabeth Bennett believed her careless sister Lydia was headed for a quickie wedding with the ne‘er-do-well Colonel Wickham. That trip did not turn out so well for Lydia Bennett, but Elkton was likely the birthplace of many a happy marriage during its quarter century heyday as the wedding capitol of Maryland.
Location and timing played key roles in Elkton becoming an elopement epicenter. In 1913, Delaware passed mandatory waiting and public notification laws for marriage. Maryland had no such laws in place and Elkton’s location in the northeastern portion of the state made it the county seat closest to a number of major urban areas, like New York and Philadelphia, whose states also had waiting periods. The new Delaware law began twenty-five years of couples arriving by train or streaming south along Route 1 to take advantage of Maryland’s no-wait laws.
County marriage statistics demonstrate the sheer volume of weddings occurring in Cecil County. In 1923, the wedding rate in New Castle County, Delaware was 6 per 1,000 members of the population, compared with a rate of 210.5 for Cecil County (Commerce 1925:8). At its peak of popularity, wedding chapels in Elkton were marrying over 5,000 couples a year (Berdan 2002). In 1936, an astonishing 11,791 marriage licenses were granted (Dixon 2012).
And the couples were getting hitched in wedding chapels; although there was no waiting period, Maryland did require a religious marriage ceremony. So Elkton’s main street became home to more than twenty wedding chapels during the 1920s and 1930s (Duffy 2015). Figure 2 shows one of the chapels in 1947. The New York couple sending the card, postmarked Elkton on July 28, 1947, was less than enthusiastic about the town. The back of the card reads:
“What a Hick town. We arrived 4:45 A.M. Saturday. 3 ministers were trying to get us to sign up already (waiting for the bus). It’s a riot. But State Law must remain 48 hours after we sign before we can be married-dammit. So Monday A.M. 9:30 we’ll be married…Well nothing to do here but drink beer- & eat grass”.
Elkton has seen its share of famous faces pledging their troth. Baseball player Willie Mays married Marguerite Wendell on Valentine’s Day in 1956 (Berdan 2002). Other famous brides and grooms included Joan Fontaine, Debbie Reynolds, Martha Raye, John and Martha Mitchell, and Pat Robertson.
Elkton weddings have also been immortalized in Hollywood films and literature. Katherine Hepburn’s and Cary Grant’s characters in The Philadelphia Story (1940) eloped to Maryland and Judy Blume’s 2015 novel, In the Unlikely Event, features a couple who secretly marry in Elkton.
In 1938, Maryland passed a measure that required a 48-hour waiting period before a marriage could take place. Although the last of the town’s quickie weddings took place in early December of that year, Elkton still celebrates its former glory by celebrating National Marriage Day each year on June 12th (Duffy 2015). Only one wedding chapel—the Historic Little Wedding Chapel—still exists in Elkton and many people who come to town to marry now do so at the county courthouse (Berdan 2002).
Marshall S. Berdan. Elkton, Marry-land. The Washington Post. February 13, 2002. Website accessed 2-2-2016. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2002/02/13/AR2005033107159.html
Judy Blume. In the Unlikely Event. Knopf, New York, 2015.
Department of Commerce. Marriage and Divorce 1923. Department of Commerce. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1925.
Mike Dixon. When the Honeymoon Express Rolled into Elkton, Bringing Cupid’s Wedding Business to Town. Window on Cecil County’s Past. February 13, 2012. Website accessed 2-2-2016. https://cecilcounty.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/when-the-honeymoon-express-rolled-into-elkton-bringing-wedding-business-to-town/
Jim Duffy. How Elkton Became the King of Quickie Weddings Back in the Day. Secrets of the Eastern Shore. 2015. Website accessed 2-2-2016. http://www.secretsoftheeasternshore.com/quickie-weddings-in-elkton/