If you’ve ever planned a wedding, you know about stress.
How about being in charge of 13 weddings? In one day? That’s the record number of weddings conducted at the Ringgold Wedding Chapel (RWC) since Darci Smith became the new owner in June.
As if 13 in one day weren’t enough, the Chapel has seen 350 weddings since Smith took over. "You have to be very organized and keep things moving," says Smith. "But you also have to make it a special time for the couple and their guests."
People may be surprised to learn that while many local couples get married at the Chapel, most are from out of town and sometimes from out of the country. "We’ve had several brides from Brazil," says Smith. "We have a lot of couples from Atlanta, Gainesville, from Bartow and Buford counties and from Alabama."
Recently, a middle-aged couple from England tied the knot at the Chapel. "They came over here to visit her son, and they decided to get married while they were here," says Smith.
Just last week a couple called from the courthouse across the street. "They said they were getting their marriage license and wanted to come over here to get married," Smith says. "We had a slot open in half an hour, so we got ready for them."
Getting ready means having everything looking nice and preparing any extras the couple may want – music, bouquet and boutonniere, unity candle, personalized cake, the historical certificate each couple receives when they marry at the Chapel. A minister must be on hand. Ceremonies can be personalized for blending families – a candelabra with many candles so the couple and children can signify unity. If the couple wants a reception, there’s decorating and other arrangements to make. The Chapel offers a photo package, too.
Most people in the area seem to know a little history of Ringgold Wedding Chapel, but for those who don’t or who have forgotten, here’s a short summary. The Chapel was originally a church – Episcopal Methodist, established in 1845 and located on Lafayette St. In 1863, during the Civil War, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman burned it down on his march through Georgia.
In 1925, the U.S. government decided to pay to help rebuild the church and contributed $600. The church was built in its current location on Nashville St. across from the courthouse. It fell into disuse after a number of years and became a storage building from 1972 to 1986 when Helen Boyd bought it and started a wedding planning service that turned into a full wedding venue.
"It was a popular place to get married," says Smith, "because you could get a marriage license at the courthouse and walk across the street and exchange vows."
The reason you could get married so quickly in Ringgold was because of Andco Laboratory on Maple St. You could get your required blood tests there and have results within an hour, explains a plaque on the courthouse lawn. The plaque is one of several around the city that shares the history of Ringgold’s fame as the wedding capital of the south.
Since 1858, 228,000 marriage licenses have been issued in Catoosa County, and many famous people have chosen Ringgold as the place to exchange vows, including Dolly Parton and Carl Dean, Tammy Wynette – twice (first to George Jones, then to Don Chapel), Ricky Townsend of the New York Giants, Bob Harvey of Jefferson Airplane, and Don Everly of the Everly Brothers. People married at the Chapel and some churches in the area and even at Andco Laboratory.
Teresa James bought the Chapel in 2008 and continued its tradition for the next nine years. When Smith learned RWC was for sale, she knew it’s what she wanted to do. "I followed Teresa around for three weeks to learn the ropes, then I jumped in." Smith says James still comes back to visit.
There was no grace period for Smith. Weddings were booked and she had to make them happen. "People are surprised that I’m new to this," she says. "They say it seems like I’ve been doing it all my life."
Smith has big dreams for the Chapel and has already implemented some of them. She established an online booking option almost immediately. "90% of our weddings are now booked online," she says. "With having to coordinate 50-60 weddings a month, that helps a lot." She and her team use walkie talkies and headphones to keep things coordinated during weddings.
Another new thing in the works is a bridal magazine. The first issue of "Embellishments" comes out in early 2018. It will be much more than articles about hair-dos and perfect nails, says Smith. "With so many couples coming from out of town, I want to partner with other local businesses to offer people information and specials so they’ll stay and see the area."
RWC will also offer online pre-marital counseling, with interactive features and a final review by one of the four ministers who work with the Chapel. "A lot of people don’t realize that you can get a discount on your marriage license if you have pre-marital counseling," says Smith. "A marriage license in Catoosa County is $65. It’s discounted to $21 if you’ve had counseling."
Smith has a vision for yet more. "I’d like to have marriage counseling at the Chapel, groups for couples to discuss relationships, Bible studies for seniors."
Smith is in the process of remodeling the Chapel’s events facilities next door. When that’s done, she says, she wants to expand RWC’s offerings to things like bridal and baby showers and birthday parties. At some point, she also hopes to offer wedding gowns for rent.
"We’re taking the business to the next level, bringing it into a new age," says Smith. "I love helping brides and other people. It’s a lot of work, but I expected that and I’m really enjoying it."
Ringgold Wedding Chapel offers numerous wedding packages that can be seen on its web site. Local businesses wishing to advertise in the upcoming bridal magazine (advertising will also include other perks) can find information on RWC’s web site or can call RWC. RWC can be reached at ringgoldweddingchapel.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or 706-935-8199. They can also be found on Facebook at facebook.com/ringgoldweddingchapel.