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Tying the knot an industry in South Carolina : Dillon, a town of 6,000 in tobacco country, has double that number of weddings each year.

August 02, 1993|LYN RIDDLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

DILLON, S.C. — Here in the heart of South Carolina's tobacco-growing region, another industry has taken root: weddings.

Dillon is a town of only 6,800 inhabitants, but in 1991, 12,818 people were married here--most of them in a marriage chapel made from a former skating rink. The tabulation hasn't been made for 1992, but officials say there is no reason to think the number went down.

There's no natural wonder here to rival Niagara Falls. Dillon's popularity has come about simply because, as the first exit off Interstate 95 in South Carolina, it provides North Carolinians and other non-residents their first opportunity to take advantage of this state's relatively lax marriage laws.

Dillon is also on the way to Myrtle Beach, one of the state's most heavily developed coastal areas and a popular honeymoon spot.

South Carolina requires only a 24-hour wait for a marriage license, and even that can be avoided if the parties write ahead to apply. The state does not require a blood test or any physical examination, whereas neighboring Georgia calls for a test for venereal disease and North Carolina mandates examinations for mental incompetence, tuberculosis, venereal disease and rubella. The marrying age here, as in most states, is 18, but with parental consent it is 16 for males and 14 for females, and those limits can be waived in some cases.

"Growing up 26, 27 years ago in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., we all knew that if we needed to get married, we could go to Dillon, S.C.," said Bob Lyon, now the assistant director and general counsel of the South Carolina Assn. of Counties. "It was much closer than Las Vegas."

Virtually all of Dillon's marriages involving non-residents take place in the marriage chapel owned by Probate Judge Greg Rogers, who bought it from his predecessor, James Renfrow. Rogers reported to the state court administrator's office that his earnings from the chapel were $169,000 in 1992 and $250,044 in 1991. His annual salary as one of 46 probate judges in the state is $30,791.

No state agency has ever investigated whether Rogers' second job is a conflict of interest because no one has ever complained about it, said Larry Propes, the deputy state courts administrator.

It is commonplace for probate judges to charge extra for after-hours weddings, but the volume--and the corresponding income--in Dillon makes the judgeship "the most cherished county job in the state," Lyon said.

Rogers, a former Dillon County sheriff and state Law Enforcement Division agent, refused to be interviewed about his judgeship or about the marriage chapel, saying he had been "burned" by reporters who insinuated there was something wrong with the arrangement.

His father, Jasper Rogers, who served as Dillon's probate judge from 1967 to 1981, said the town's first such chapel was started in the 1960s by his predecessor, who tired of having couples knocking on the door of his home at all hours of the day and night. At that time, the chapel was located next door to the courthouse in downtown Dillon.

The elder Rogers continued the business during his tenure as probate judge. When Renfrow was elected probate judge, he found the downtown chapel inadequate because its small waiting room often forced couples outside for a long wait. So he bought and renovated the closed skating rink on Highway 9 about a mile from the center of town.

The building now has a huge waiting room, something on the order of an airport lobby, and a small but dignified chapel.

Some patrons arrive in their street clothes, others in white gowns and tuxedos.

Usually, couples find that they do indeed have to wait--sometimes as long as three hours--even though most choose the no-frills, 15-minute ceremony for $60, which includes the $15 license fee. The chapel also offers consulting, planning, photography, flowers and videotaping.

The chapel is open nights and weekends. On Valentine's Day, it looks a bit like an Academy Awards gathering, with limousines and lavishly dressed people everywhere.

Renfrow said most people have the false impression that most of weddings here are of the shotgun variety between a young, pregnant bride and a somewhat reluctant groom or young people running away from home.

"All kinds of people come," he said. "Young people who don't have a lot of money for a big wedding, second marriages. I remember meeting people who said their parents had been married there."

The elder Rogers recalled a couple from California calling to find out how long it would take them to drive to Dillon. He told them five days, and sure enough on the fifth day they showed up to tie the knot.

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