To love and to cherish till death do us part

Typical church wedding circa 1941 / Photo courtesy of Ron Kenmir

“My parents eloped,” said my friend Ron. “They got married in Crookston and honeymooned in Warroad.”

It was 1941. They were Willis and Vivian, a couple of North Dakota farm kids. He didn’t have a job. She was still in college. With no money for a traditional wedding, they fled across the state line into Minnesota and a justice of the peace.

Oddly enough, this was the first actual elopement story I’d ever heard, and the reason surprised me. Somehow, even after all these years, I’ve held onto the fanciful notion I’d had as a teenager that elopement during the Depression and war years was exciting, romantic— even mysterious.

But a bit of research proved this was not necessarily so.

Some couples eloped simply because they “had to get married,” meaning of course that a baby was on the way.

A Protestant may have fallen in love with a Catholic. A deep divide existed then between the two religions which spilled over into the 1950s when I was confirmed. I still recall during Confirmation class my Lutheran minister strongly advising—almost forbidding—any of us to marry a Catholic.

But as with Willis and Vivian, the main reason was money. In 1941, the country was just coming out of the Great Depression. Even for the few people with money, the expense of a traditional wedding was impractical.

Another frequent reason was that the parents objected to the person their daughter or son intended to marry.

According to Ron, this also may have occurred with his parents. The two families were not on the best terms. The bride’s parents ran a business as well as farmed, which put them in a higher rural social strata. They might have felt their daughter should marry someone of the same status.

It’s a wonder, then, that my very own sister Adeline didn’t elope. No one could have been more opposed to Adeline’s choice of groom than my mother.

Adeline was 14 years older than me. During WWII—much to my parents’ delight—she had become engaged to Lester, a local Lutheran boy who was off serving in the army in Germany. Adeline met someone else. She wrote Lester a “Dear John” letter breaking their engagement and announcing she planned to marry Dietrich, the new man.

Young as I was at the time, I still remember my mother’s anger with Adeline over Dietrich.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that the traditional church wedding of that era was a solemn and dignified affair. Its every aspect was governed by a long-held protocol which was faithfully followed to the smallest detail.

The service was usually held at night. The invitation always stated: “Reception to follow in church parlors.” (Church basement).  Ladies Aid members prepared the meal, which of course was sans liquor. The bride gifted each waitress (her girlfriends) who served the meal with a dainty organdy apron. Even the same pair of matching candelabra holding tapered candles in the bride’s favorite color graced the bridal table.

It occurs to me that having to follow this rigid set of rules may have been a turnoff to many a bride and groom, and possibly provided yet one more reason to elope.

It also occurs to me that, ironically, because these rules were so restrictive, they also may have served to loosen things up and bring about the change that has occurred through the years.

For as anyone who has attended a wedding today knows, vows are spoken in a wide assortment of venues. It could be a restored barn, a public park, even a converted boathouse along the Pacific Ocean shoreline like one I once attended. And if memory serves, a couple who adored the Minnesota State Fair were married while riding in a Ferris wheel there.

The reception is usually held in a hotel ballroom, followed by a dance. Champagne is almost always offered to the guests. Sometimes a “destination wedding” is held in another state or even another country. And Cancun, Hawaii or another exotic location are most frequently chosen for the honeymoon.

Indeed, the traditional church wedding seems almost quaint!

There is of course a huge price tag for all of this. The average amount spent on a wedding today is—Uff Da!—$30,000.

Now, I can’t help but wonder if a rebellion could be in the making over the high cost. Couples planning a wedding might say ENOUGH!

. . . Let’s just quietly slip away and find a Justice of the Peace!

Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess.