Las Vegas boasts that it is America’s “wedding capital.” Yet, in the early years of the twentieth century, Michigan, especially the Lake Michigan town of St. Joseph, was the “wedding capital of the Midwest.” Michigan marriage laws did not require residency, allowed people to marry at the age of 18 and did not require any witnesses other than the county clerk, his wife or an assistant and the presiding officials.
The result was that hundreds of amorous couples, especially from Chicago, boarded a steamer for the four-hour trip to St. Joseph. Most couples chose Sunday to get married. Traveling to St. Joseph for a quickie marriage became so popular that the Chicago Tribune reported more steamboats had to be added to this “rapid matrimonial transit.” At times, crowding at the Chicago docks became so bad that “it required a squad of policemen . . . to restrain the bridal couples from pushing each other into the Chicago River in a frenzied effort to get into the boat.”
Once in St. Joseph, the couples sought the county clerk, justices of the peace and the clergy–all of whom performed marriages any day of the week–”day or night.” Newspaper accounts reported wedding ceremonies being performed at 2:00 A.M. The ceremonies usually took little time; the record time for performing a marriage was thirty seconds.
Eventually, quickie marriages caused the Michigan secretary of state to lament about the “development of the famous ‘St. Joseph marriage industry.’” Opposition forces finally changed the state law. Couples would have to wait five days after taking out a license before they could be married. On August 27, 1925, Michigan’s reign as the Midwest’s marriage capital came to an end.
For the full story on Michigan’s “weekend weddings” see the January/February 2007 issue of Michigan History magazine. For more information, a free trial issue, or to learn about Michigan History for Kids magazine call (800) 366-3703 or visit www.michiganhistorymagazine.com.
Update: Michigan Radio’s Jack Lessenberry did a Valentine’s Day interview with St. Joseph librarian, Alicia Allen about the history and then reflects on love and marriage in Michigan in his essay.