WASHINGTON – Crossing the border into Maryland to get married is hardly a new trend: Cecil County was the place to elope in the first half of the century, and it still issues the vast majority of its marriage licenses to out-of-state couples.
Cecil County Clerk William Brueckman said the county was known before 1940 as the “Gretna Green of America,” a reference to a Scottish border village where English couples went to get married under Scotland’s more lax marriage laws.
That reputation remains today, even though it is not as easy to get married in Maryland as it used to be. In 1997, 79.8 percent of Cecil County’s 6,163 marriage licenses were granted to out-of-state residents.
“People come here to get married because their parents and grandparents did it here,” said Frank Smith, who performs marriage ceremonies at the Historic Little Chapel in Elkton. “It’s tradition.”
That tradition began back when Maryland’s laws were less strict than those of surrounding states. Before the laws changed around the start of World War II, there was no waiting period for a marriage license in Cecil County, attracting couples from all over who wanted to get hitched quick.
Cecil County benefited from its location, Brueckman said: Elkton is less than 20 miles from the Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey borders.
When new laws created a two-day waiting period before marriage in the 1940s, the town had already garnered a reputation as the marriage capital of the East and it stuck, Brueckman said.
The 1997 out-of-state marriage rate of 79.8 percent in Cecil County was down slightly from the 84.9 percent rate of 1977, according to state data. But it was still more than four times the state average of 18.7 percent of licenses being issued to non-residents.
At the Historic Little Chapel, Smith said he performs about 600 non- sectarian marriages a year. The chapel has been on East Main Street, across from the county courthouse, since about 1920.
“We give them what they can’t find in a courthouse,” said Smith, who has been at the Historic Little Chapel for three years.
He said weddings at the chapel are scheduled on the hour and provide candlelight, music and a photographer, among other wedding niceties.
More than 85 percent of the chapel’s weddings are to out-of-state residents, Smith said. During the World War II years, the chapel was marrying almost 4,000 couples a year.
The Historic Little Chapel is one of the few to survive a 1939 change in the law that made it illegal for marriage chapels to advertise, which put many of the town’s small chapels and ministers practicing in their homes out of business.
“It’s quite a hindrance when you can’t put a sign on the door,” Smith said.