National Geographic : 2002 Feb
ELKTON, MARYLAND Amiable citizens walking quiet streets with an easy air-the generics of small-town America-make Elkton, Maryland, not much different from other towns scattered above the northern reaches of the Chesapeake Bay. Then why do thousands of people travel here each year to get married, even folks of prominence from times gone by? Ethel Merman, Bert Lahr, Joan Fontaine, and Cornel Wilde, movie stars; John Eisenhower, son of Ike; John Mitchell, former attorney general; singers Billie Holiday, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and Maxene Andrews of the Andrews Sisters; and sports luminaries-Willie Mays, baseball, Jersey Joe Walcott, boxing, and Charles Barkley, basketball. What swirl of grav ity draws them to Elkton, population 12,000, zip code 21921? Answers are sought at the fire department's annual antique sale, where a visitor inquires after a certain Mr.... "Dixon?" responds Don Herring, ticket taker and retired editor of The Cecil Whig. "I think I saw the sheriff taking him away." Kermit DeBoard, an antiques dealer, points to a tall man in a striped shirt loitering near the stemware. "Looks like he's stealing something,' DeBoard says. The veins of drollery run deep here, it seems. Confronted, the suspect identifies himself as Mike Dixon, historian of the Historical Society of Cecil County. We sit to slices of Impossible Pie, served by Nancy Caldwell, who explains that it is just impossible not to make it taste good. Dixon harkens back to 1913, the year neighboring Delaware imposed a four-day waiting period on marriages. Maryland had no such waiting period, no blood test, no nothing to delay the union of eager couples heading south from Delaware into Maryland. "Elkton was the first county seat they hit," says Dixon. When the word got around, more couples began arriving from other states to the north. In 1936 the town issued 11,791 marriage licenses. Taxi drivers met trains and buses and vied for couples in competition that sometimes included "I've done 35,000 marriages, give or take, in18 years," says Janice Potts. Movie stars, athletes, and just plain folks have exchanged vows before Janice Potts, deputy clerk at the courthouse. Once, Maryland's lax marriage law drew elopers. Now nostalgia guides nuptials.