52 Ancestors: Traveling to a Gretna Green

Posted by: Eileen A. Souza

Lorraine Gunther and William J. Noble, ca.1917

Lorraine Gunther and William J. Noble, ca.1917

When I found a clue that my maternal grandparents, my grandfather, William J. Noble (1896 – 1945), and my grandmother, Lorraine Gunther Noble (1897 – 1977), married in Elkton, Cecil County, Maryland, I was extremely surprised. Both William and Lorraine, respectively, lived in Ranshaw, Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. Chasing this clue, I obtained a copy of their marriage record from Elkton and learned that it was correct. They were married 29 June 1917, one-hundred and one years ago last month.

Elkton is a town in and the county seat of Cecil County, Maryland and was once known as the ‘Gretna Green’ of the East because of its popularity as a place for eloping couples to marry.

According to Google Maps, it is 115 to 131 miles one-way from Ranshaw, Northumberland County, Pennsylvania to Elkton, Cecil County, MD, taking 2hrs 48 min to 2h 55 min using modern automobiles and interstate highways, both of which did not exist at the time of their marriage. Their trip probably entailed the use of buses and trains, since William most likely did not own an automobile at that stage of his life. I can’t begin to imagine how long it took them to travel to Elkton from their home, in addition to the questions this event raises.

First and foremost, why did they travel to a Gretna Green to get married? One of the usual reasons is that one or both were under the age of consent. In this case, according to the marriage license application, William was 21 and Lorraine was 19 years of age. My research into Pennsylvania marriage laws seems to indicate that only applicants from 16 to 18 years of ages needed parental or legal guardian consent. Therefore, they could have married in Pennsylvania. Elkton had no waiting period between issuance of the license and the marriage; Pennsylvania had a 3-day waiting period. They could have been in a hurry for some reason.

Maybe there was parental disapproval of this marriage. Later events seem to indicate that all was not well within the marriage. I remember my mother telling me that her mother had to clean houses to help support that family and she (my mother) had to drop out of school in her senior year to work. William turned out to be a wee bit of a drinker.

Another of my theories is that William might have wished to avoid being drafted. He registered for the mandatory draft for WWI on 5 June 1918, almost a year from the date of his marriage. I might imagine that even in 1917, there may have already been conversations about a draft and the US entering the war. I have not found any indication that he served during this war.

In his 1918 WWI draft registration, William lists his address as 446 Main St., Ranshaw, Pa. This address is the household of his father-in-law both in 1910 and 1920. In the 1920 census, my grandmother and my mother are still living in the same household with my great-grandparents, but William is not a resident. I have so far been unable to trace William in 1920 census records. He may have traveled to find employment. He does show up, with my grandmother, in the 1926 Shamokin City Directory. His occupation is listed as an engineer (his draft card listed his employer as the R & R Railroad Co., Shamokin, Pa. in 1918, no occupation specified).

I would love to hear any thoughts as to why my grandparents may have traveled so far to get married.


The 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge, initiated by Amy Johnson Crow, is a series of weekly prompts to get you to think about an ancestor and share something about them. The guesswork of “who should I write about” is taken care of. This week’s theme is Travel.

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4 Responses to 52 Ancestors: Traveling to a Gretna Green

  1. Barbara Scherer says:

    Unless the law changed, when I married in 1963 I was 19 and my husband was 20. His mother had to sign for him to get married. The only reason kids I knew went to Elkton was that they were pregnant. It didn’t change anything because they came back home married and there was nothing their parents could do about it. We lived in PA.

    • Eileen says:

      Thanks Barbara. You were also under age. Did you parent(s) have to sign as well? I thought the legal age was 21 but when I began researching it for this time period, I kept coming up with the lower ages. I really do think the legal age was 21 in 1917 and I am trying to confirm this. If I do, I will update the post. Thanks again for you feedback.

  2. Lynne says:

    Rumor has it don’t know who told me that our grandfather Williams family was not approving him marrying a German they were Irish and wanted only Irish within the family. When your mother married an Italian and my father married a Ukrainian the rift grew even more. I heard Williams mother said something nasty about that using ethnic slurs. Our grandfather William had a big family so maybe they were told to shun him. Although I do remember a cousin Peggy coming to the house in Philly to visit my dad. I also remember going to a family reunion upstate in a park when I was young. I will look for my notes I took. Also the Nobles might have had something to do with a bar or lived next to a bar. Never hear William was a drinker and my father rarely drank.

    • During WWII, Grammy lived on Torresdale Avenue. That is where William died in 1945. I know. I was there and saw him die. On the corner of that street was a bar owned by a man named Mike. I remember getting yelled at because I was always going down there to try to get Mike to give me some whiskey. Apparently, my 2-year self had developed a taste for it. Couldn’t stand it as an adult. My understanding at the time was that after your grandfather died, Grammy and Mike were good friends.

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