RINGGOLD, Ga. — George H. Fleetwood and Pam Griffin didn't waste any time getting married Friday afternoon.
The couple from Rome, Ga., paid $65 in cash for their marriage license at the Catoosa County Courthouse, then walked directly across Nashville Street to seal the deal with a $50 ceremony at the Ringgold Wedding Chapel for just the two of them.
"I said, 'Let's just stop by the chapel right here,'" Fleetwood said, "Why not? I'm in love."
The newlywed Fleetwoods aren't alone in picking Ringgold as the place to get hitched. The city of some 3,500 residents has a longstanding reputation as a marriage mecca.
Country superstars George Jones and Tammy Wynette started their tumultuous six-year union there in 1969. Dolly Parton and husband Carl Dean had better luck in 1966 getting married in Ringgold -- they're still together.
The courthouse downtown issues between 2,000 and 2,400 marriage licenses a year, said Probate Court Clerk Shawna Cooper, who's somewhat mystified by the small town's matrimonial magnetism.
"We've heard about Ringgold," couples will tell Cooper. "And I'm like, 'How?'"
Catoosa County does make marriage easier than other Georgia counties, she said.
Only one piece of identification is required from a bride or groom, Cooper said. A marriage license costs $65 -- cash only.
Other counties require such paperwork as divorce decrees from all past marriages and death certificates to prove former spouses have died, Cooper said.
Catoosa County officials only want to see divorce documents if the separation took place within six months.
Judges in other counties often aren't able to schedule weddings right away. In Ringgold, the probate and magistrate judges are willing to marry couples as they show up.
Couples from all over
County officials also direct couples to the Ringgold Wedding Chapel, which has been in business since the mid-1980s inside a historic building that originally was a Methodist church.
"We're the best-kept secret locally that the world knows about," said Teresa James, who has owned the chapel since 2008.
"They come from all over the world," she said, citing customers from England, Laos, Austria, Australia and Argentina, among other countries.
One celebrity who got married in the chapel, James said, was Bob Harvey, a founding member of the 1960s psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane.
Some couples plan weddings with James, who offers packages costing as much as $599 for up to 100 guests on Saturdays and holidays.
The least expensive is $50 for a walk-in, weekday, couples-only wedding.
The chapel performs 700 to 750 ceremonies a year, James said.
Valentine's Day is the chapel's busiest, with 20 weddings performed this year.
"I did 14 of them," said Troy Simmons, the minister at Straight Way Holiness Church in Soddy-Daisy whom James hired about three years ago to perform marriages at her chapel. It's closed on Sundays.
A Spanish-speaking minister performed the other seven Valentine's Day weddings.
"She built that trust in their community," Simmons said. "They can come here and be treated fair."
No particular type of couple predominates, James said.
As young as 16
"We've had 'em as young as 16," James said, explaining that the teenage couples' parents signed off on the union at the courthouse.
The oldest customer James can remember was a 97-year-old man.
"When do you want to get married?" she asked him. He replied, "I'm 97. As soon as possible."
Simmons has tucked a cellphone in his shirt pocket so far-off family members can hear the ceremony.
One wedding was video broadcast over the Internet via Skype so the father, who was serving in the U.S. military in the Middle East, could step away from an important meeting to watch.
"He said, 'Excuse me, I've got to go watch my daughter get married,'" James said.
Themed weddings take place, too, she said, including pirate, motorcycle, Western and redneck weddings.
"We had a St. Patrick's wedding. Even the baby was painted green," James said.
"We've had pajama weddings," she said. That couple explained, "Everybody sees us in pajamas. No one will know us if we're dressed."
"We have fun with it," James said, explaining her take on weddings. "It's a celebration."
James takes weddings seriously, though. She says they're for keeps, and if need be, she'll steer couples who have gone through the chapel toward marriage counseling services.
She said God led her to run the wedding chapel.
"I ask God to help me. That Holy Spirit comes in, and he just makes it work," she said.
James said she's moved by couples' stories.
George and Pam Fleetwood shared theirs Friday.
They met when Pam's then-husband was fixing his car, and George offered to help.
The three became friends, and George decided to marry Pam after her husband died and she was alone.
"I just couldn't let her go through life like that," George said.
A box of tissues is stashed in each of the 16 pews in the Ringgold Wedding Chapel, and George and Pam helped themselves to dry their eyes during their emotional ceremony.
"I'm going to look like Tammy Faye," Pam joked at one point, referring to the late televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, famous for tear-smeared mascara.
Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a township¹s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...