ELKTON — John Hamilton and Michelle Blomquist got married on Saturday night at the Historic Little Wedding Chapel on Main Street in downtown Elkton — giving them the distinction of being the last couple ever to wed there.
It was a bittersweet ceremony.
“It’s a very happy day for us, obviously, but it’s also a sad day and we are quite aware of that,” said Michelle, a Rising Sun-area resident whose last name is now Hamilton.
John chimed in, “I felt sorry for the owner because I know this had to be very emotional for him.”
The owner, The Rev. Frank Smith, 70, must vacate the historic building by Wednesday.
In 2015, Smith received notice from Cecil Bank that it was no longer funding his business equity and wanted full payment within 30 days. The bank itself was under a directive from the U.S. Federal Reserve System to raise enough capital to be deemed adequately capitalized. Although Smith was up-to-date with his first mortgage and equity line, the bank requested $80,000 for his business line of credit.
The bank began foreclosure proceedings in August 2015 and although Smith, along with his local lawyers who represented him pro bono, tried to fight the foreclosure, the judge ruled in favor of the bank in February 2016. In June 2016, the chapel was put up for auction and purchased by Cecil Bank for $60,000.
Despite the cloud of uncertainty hanging over the historic structure, Smith continued to perform weddings until he and Cecil Bank came to an agreement late last month for a two-week notice period to vacate.
“I never missed a payment, but that doesn’t matter,” Smith said Saturday, explaining that Cecil Bank went into receivership and federal banking officials took over. “They don’t care about Elkton’s history. They’re bean counters. They only care about the bottom line.”
That’s the business side of this story.
The personal side is this: Smith has married more than 6,000 couples at that chapel since 1996. Smith’s late wife, Barbara, better known as Bobbie Ann, who opened the still-operating Bobbie Ann’s Dance Studio in Elkton in 1947, purchased the chapel in 1980. Smith, who married Bobbie Ann in 1994, moved into the building after her death in 2013 and he is now moving.
As for the historical side, the chapel actually opened in the 1920s. It is believed that more than 100,000 couples have tied the knot there and, during the first few decades of its existence, those brides and grooms from numerous states had flocked to Elkton because it was known as the “Marriage Capital.”
That’s because Maryland had comparatively lax marriage license rules and because Elkton, which is close to several states, is the first county seat that southbound travelers hit. In 1938, Maryland instituted a two-day waiting period before a couple could wed after receiving the marriage license.
Elkton had more than 15 wedding chapels in its heyday and, according to lore, taxi drivers used to line up at the train station in town to shuttle brides and grooms to marrying parsons. Famous people are among the thousands of couples that married in Elkton, including Hall-of-Fame baseball player Willie Mays and actress Joan Fontaine.
Romanticizing the town’s reputation even more, Elkton has been mentioned as a wedding mecca in movies, TV shows, books and magazines, including National Geographic, which featured the Historic Little Wedding Chapel in a 2002 article. The chapel also was highlighted in a “Good Morning America” segment and in other TV news shows.
“Yesterday marked a passage of a unique period of history for Elkton — a place that has a lot of history,” Mike Dixon, historian at the Cecil County Historical Society, commented Sunday.
That rich history was in the back of Smith’s mind on Saturday as he soldiered through the last five nuptials at his chapel, which had operated as the only wedding chapel in Elkton since the 1960s.
“I am melancholy today, but I can’t let it show,” Smith said, pausing momentarily before explaining, “It’s all about the couples who are getting married. This is their special day, and I want to make this enjoyable for them. I want to give them good memories.”
Smith prided himself in providing a heartfelt wedding ceremony that, as he had done more 6,000 times previously, Smith delivered in a calm, reverent voice Saturday. Each ceremony lasted about 12 minutes and included the bride’s walk down the aisle, the recitation of vows, wedding ring exchanges, a prayer, a blessing and the husband-and-wife pronouncement followed by the traditional kiss at the altar.
Chapel photographer Lisa Bush snapped pictures throughout the ceremonies. After each wedding, Bush took photographs of the brides and grooms together and with family members. She took a picture of each couple holding their marriage license while standing beside Smith. And without fail, Bush snapped a shot of each couple in front of the building with the Historic Little Wedding Chapel sign in the background.
“We schedule our weddings two hours apart, so the couples aren’t rushing. They can relax before and after the ceremony,” Smith said.
He gestured toward the Cecil County Circuit Courthouse across the street from the chapel and commented, “They do civil ceremonies over there; I do weddings.”
Bush noted that some people who had been married at the chapel over the years reached out to Smith after learning that it would be closing.
“We had one couple come in today (Saturday) to get a picture taken of them at the altar, 40 years after they were married here. They held their old 8-by-10 wedding photo in the picture, kind of a before-and-after shot. It was so neat,” Bush said.
Moments later, Bush, who had worked at the chapel for seven years, remarked, “It’s going to be so strange not coming here anymore.”
A Cecil County native who graduated from Bohemia Manor High School in 1985, Michelle said she and John were quite familiar with the chapel. Knowing it would close at the end of business Saturday and sensing the end of a fabled era, they scheduled an evening wedding to ensure that their ceremony would be the last.
“It’s such a cute chapel,” Michelle, 49, said, noting that her brother had gotten married there in the 1980s. “There is so much history behind this place and we wanted to be a part of it.”
John, 50, summarized, “I guess being the last wedding here gives us bragging rights, but we also know this is a very sad day for him (Smith). There is so much history to this place. I hope all of those previous marriages bring us good luck.”
(They also picked Saturday because it was April Fool’s Day. “It’s fitting because we’re both goofballs. We have the same personality and that’s why we get along so well,” said Michelle, who met John through a dating app, quite her job in finance and now runs his Tile Maryland business with him.)
Sentimental reasons also motivated Tyrone Hunt and Tamara Bookman, both of Smyrna, Del., to hold their wedding at the chapel on Saturday. Their union marked the next-to-last wedding conducted there.
“I was married in this chapel in 1994. My first husband, Joseph, died in 2006. I wanted to come back to the Little Wedding Chapel. We were originally suppose to get married here on April 8, but when we heard it was closing, we moved our wedding up to today (Saturday),” Tamara, 55, explained. “He (Smith) did a great job today. He took his time and made it special for us.”
The couple met through family members.
“I never imagined that I would ever get married again,” said Tyrone, 63, a divorcee. “But when I met Tamara, that changed my mind. God works in mysterious ways.”
He and Tamara were also aware that their wedding fell on a bittersweet day.
“It’s sad on one end because, after all those years and all those weddings, this chapel is closing. But on the other end, this is a joyous day for us,” Tamara said.