The Kennebunks have been a wedding destination since the 1870s, when city dwellers to our south, desperate to escape the urban heat, smells and diseases, discovered coastal Maine.

They spent their first summers in rustic farm houses near the shore. Local promoters soon built hotels and developed former pasture land along the coast, dreaming that prominent New England families would build Newport-like cottages and spend the season in the Kennebunks.

Most, during the earlier years, arrived at the Kennebunk Depot, where they and their steamer trunks were met by hotel coaches and buggies.

Local boasters, wanting a more mystic allure, fabricated romantic tales. A sentimental yarn was spun that a newly-married captain on his wedding day had to rush to sea where he lovingly carved gingerbread trim. Returning, he turned their home into a confectionary wedding cake. Now, 150 years later, couples, many of them in their wedding attire, pose for pictures in front of the Wedding Cake House.

The Kennebunks soon became synonymous with romance and weddings. Beginning with those first important families, each season, marriages followed which united families and great fortunes. Some of their descendants continue to summer in the Kennebunks. One summer colony family gave us U.S. presidents 41 and 43.

The back lawn of the the Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport, a popular wedding destination in southern Maine. Joel Page photo/Press Herald

We’ve always smiled when we catch a glimpse of a bride and groom posing at the beach for their wedding pictures. We get to share in their big day and their hopes for a new beginning. These sightings are pretty non-existent this year because of COVID-19 and the governor’s group-size cap and unworkable lodging restrictions.

A wedding in the Kennebunks is not a-spur-of-the-moment event. It’s planning by a mother and daughter can rival a D-Day landing. The law of supply and demand means that the church, reception venue, and caterer must be booked the year before. Some young women have been rumored to have done the bookings before they’ve even met the man of their dreams.

Previous summers, local churches ran Saturday schedules — April through late October, that rivaled New York’s Grand Central. Weddings ran on two-hour shifts with florists, musicians, and photographers securing in and out for each. A few years back, a florist friend, while she was setting up her arrangements for a wedding only minutes away told us it was her second of seven weddings that day.

This short wedding season provides the revenue stream which enables our local businesses and services to survive another year. It takes a whole village to carry off a memorable wedding and the dollars are spread far and wide. Over the years with the extravagance and costs of weddings, adding in the honeymoon, some are rumored to be over the $100,000 price tag.

Local beneficiaries include restaurants, inns, and B&Bs, wedding planners, printers, nail techs, limo drivers, florists, spas, photographers, wedding singers and ceremony musicians.

After the ceremony, the prosperity ripples broaden with the reception venues, equipment rentals — tents, silverware, glasses, table linens, china and floral settings — their food and wine whole sellers, servers, and bartenders, reception DJs, bands, and wedding cake and cupcake bakers.

This year’s wedding season looked to be a banner year, when businesses began taking reservations last year. Those deposits are their bridge to the new season.

Two weeks before the season’s traditional start, COVID-19 struck. The crowd-size was capped at 10 people and all churches, restaurants, and lodgings were shut down. To continue planning a 2020 wedding in Maine became too much of a gamble, so the cancellations poured in. The cash flow turned to all outgoing as deposits had to be refunded. Too many of these wedding-dependent businesses are now running on the fumes of their last available credit. Many may not survive this disastrous season.

In June, the size cap was raised to less than 50 for churches and reception venues, but it was too late. The inns, hotels and B&Bs could open, but their out-of-state guests had only two unworkable options under the state’s new lodgings policy.

The first: you must have already done or will quarantine yourself for 14 days with zero contacts outside the room. That’s over $2,000, plus the cost of 14 days of room service meals.

Their second choice: present a negative COVID-19 test result performed less than 72 hours before your check-in. In most states, “I’m going to a wedding in Maine” won’t give you access to a test site. If it did, most labs can’t get the results back to you in less than three to five days. Add in your travel time to Maine and the 72-hour requirement can’t be met. Just too many hurdles for a two-night stay for a Maine wedding.

Mid-June, the governor exempted the residents of Vermont and New Hampshire, both very low COVID-19 states, from the two lodging’s options. July 2, she added Connecticut, New York and New Jersey to the exempted list. These changes should marginally help both the lodging and restaurants sectors of our tourism economy, but not enough, because it’s too late, to save the wedding season. There are 44 other states, Canada, and all the other countries in the world that have not been exempted.

We don’t know what’s happened to the couples who dreamed of a Maine wedding. Some, not wanting to jump hurdles probably married closer to home, settled for a small civil ceremony, or eloped. Though Las Vegas has reopened, I can’t believe that many opted for an Elvis-themed wedding chapel ceremony.

The optimists, believing the beast will simply go away or an effective vaccine will be available, may possibly hold out for late fall.

The cautious couples, given the uncertainty of the economy, may have decided to keep that dream of a Kennebunk wedding alive by postponing their nuptials until 2021.

We all want the Kennebunks to continue to be the starting point of their new lives together, but the loss of this wedding season will leave the Kennebunks a much changed host in the future.

In our small villages along the sea, we miss the romance that used to be in the air this time of year.

Tom Murphy is a former history teacher and state representative. He is a Kennebunk Landing resident and can be reached at [email protected]

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