The setting is a bustling railroad town in East Tenessee's picturesque Cumberland Gap, a natural gap in the Cumberland Mountains where Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee meet. It is the year 1916 and Robin W. Brooks, or Squire Brooks as he became known, has been elected justice of the peace in the town where he and his family make their home. What is unique about the Brooks' home, however, is that over the next several years, thousands of people would come there, many from hundreds of miles away, for a very special reason - to be married.
During this period of time, Cumberland Gap was "the place" to go for couples to get married - to Squire Brooks' home in this charming community in the mountains, which would come to be called the "Marriage Place." With passenger trains arriving daily, Squire Brooks would perform marriage ceremonies for the couples for a charge of as little as 25 cents.
Journals faithfully kept by Squire Brooks afford us the opportunity for a glimpse into the unique history of this enchanting time and place. As we read excerpts from the records carefully penned by the squire, his writings seem to reflect how meaningful each ceremony he performed was to him. Not only did he keep records of each wedding ceremony, he also noted in the journals tidbits of national and area newsworthy events as well as his observations of the local weather.
For instance, from the journal in which Squire Brooks kept records for the years 1926-1930, we learn that 10 couples were married by him on December 25, 1928. Other notes in the journal kept by the squire after he retired as justice of the peace in 1930 tell us that Chicago's Mayor Carmack was assassinated in Miami, Florida, a few days before the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. And, the latest weather-related news included in his journal for March 14, 1933, describes the horror caused by a tornado that touched down in Harrogate, resulting in the deaths of two children and serious injuries to several other residents. The last page of the journal in which the squire had kept records in 1930 includes a note he had written that in the 14 years and six months he served as justice of the peace for the town of Cumberland Gap, he had performed a total of 7,183 marriage ceremonies. It is in that same journal that a notation written by an unknown hand tells us that Squire Brooks passed away August 15, 1933, at 5 o'clock. But, although the time in Cumberland Gap's history during which the squire performed so many wedding ceremonies had passed, the story of the marriage place did not end there.
Betty Howard, a 51-year resident of Cumberland Gap, is no newcomer to the wedding chapel business. For nine years, she and a partner operated a wedding chapel in Cumberland Gap where they rented the facility that housed their chapel. When this building was sold in 1997, no other location she felt suitable was available, and their business had to be dissolved. But, that dissolution only served as an inspiration for her to move forward with her dream to build a new wedding chapel.
And so, in December 2003, the new Cumberland Gap Wedding Chapel was officially opened for business at 905 North Cumberland Drive on the lot that Betty's husband, Hugh, had purchased many years ago. Mr. Howard, who is now deceased, had once told her that someday she would build a wedding chapel there, which makes it even more special to her. And, what makes it so extraordinary is the fact that it was built on the same spot where Squire Brooks had lived and performed thousands of marriage ceremonies so many years ago.
The chapel was built by Howard's nephew, Jim O'Neal, who is also a resident of Cumberland Gap. There are a number of ordained ministers available, from a variety of denominations, or you can bring your own. For more information about the wedding chapel, contact Joe Wolfenbarger at (423) 869-5562, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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