- Associated Press - Friday, February 20, 2015

JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) - Jane Ballard said her love affair with trains began in 1989 when she picked out a retired Santa Fe caboose at the Argentine Railway Yard in Kansas City and relocated it to Prosperity for use as a gift shop.

Now she wants to give couples the chance to get married in that caboose. It’s among several unique places in the Four States where lovebirds can tie the knot.

The caboose was brought by rail to a feed mill near Prosperity, then offloaded by cranes to straddle two trailers that drove it the remaining mile to its current location.

Ballard opened it as a gift shop soon after. In 1996, she added a Santa Fe passenger car from Northwest Arkansas and opened a tea room.

“I filled it with kitchen items - cookie cutters, cookbooks, gadgets and tools that make life easier in the kitchen,” she said.

The caboose became a museum of railroad items.

“But when I opened the caboose in 1989, I said I was only going to do it for 20 years,” Ballard said. “That’s long enough to do anything.”

And so, on the 20th anniversary, she closed it all - a good time to get out, she said, with the economy tanking.

Ballard’s idea to convert it into a wedding chapel was inspired by a recent trip to Mount Vernon, where she and her husband, Bob, saw a sign advertising “The World’s Smallest Wedding Chapel.”

“We drove by it, then turned around and went back and (we) both said about the same time, ‘You know, the caboose would be a really great wedding chapel,’” she said.

Since then, she said, “I have hauled I can’t tell you how many loads to auction,” because she quickly realized all the knickknacks still stored in the caboose would leave precious little room for a bride, groom, officiant and guests.

The past week has seen her cleaning and remodeling it, adding chairs and beginning to plan a small “stage.”

She plans to begin booking weddings full time in June, and will offer an “all-inclusive package,” she said, that will include flowers, music, photography and an officiant - her husband, who obtained online certification.

Ballard believes the caboose will seat 20 people comfortably, The Joplin Globe (https://bit.ly/1ySsARP ) reports.

“It’s a small venue, and sometimes people want that,” she said. “But what makes it special is it’s unique. How many people can say they got married in a train caboose?”

Smallest chapel?

Whether Steve Carl’s wedding chapel at Mount Vernon is the world’s smallest is up for debate.

The Living Water Wayside Chapel near Niagara Falls in New York holds the honor in the Guinness Book of World Records, but its size and seating capacity is identical to Carl’s.

“The outside dimensions are 6-foot by 10-foot, and we can fit six people inside,” Carl said. “Although I’d say it fits five guests comfortably, with one standing.”

“Guinness said mine was the world’s smallest at one point, but I didn’t want to pay the $1,700 to publish it as such.”

He’s had as many as 13 people inside it before, counting the bride and groom.

“I told them they all had to hold their breath to go in,” he said.

Carl built the chapel in 2008 when he found himself without a job and saw a need for “elopement wedding destinations” in Southwest Missouri, he said.

He spent about $2,000 on materials.

A longtime minister, he officiates at all of the ceremonies, of which there have been 415 in the seven years since it opened. They’ve included an 88-year-old couple, a couple dressed in costume on Halloween, and a couple who drove from Tampa, Florida, just for the ceremony.

The most recent wedding was earlier this month.

Carl says he isn’t in it for profit. His standard service, which includes a keepsake Bible and certificate printed on parchment paper, is $50.

“The most expensive wedding you can possibly buy here is $125,” he said. “That one’s outside under a canopy of oak trees and seats 125.”

Since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, couples have been flocking to Lavern’s Wedding Chapel in Miami, Oklahoma, for its walk-in 10-minute wedding ceremony.

Formerly a courtroom, the chapel was founded by Justice of the Peace J.J. Swetnam and opened its doors to weddings in 1954.

He performed the ceremony when Patricia Jones’ parents married there in 1955; her mother was Lavern.

“She started working for him in 1966 as a secretary,” Jones recalled. “Highway Patrol used to bring their traffic fines here. There’s a lot of history in this place.”

Jones began working at the chapel with her mother in 1977, and today is co-owner.

A ceremony there runs $60. A bouquet and corsage can be thrown in for another $14.

More than 100,000 couples have tied the knot at Lavern’s, Jones said, or about 650 a year.

They’ve ranged from professional clowns to square dancers to brides and grooms who want pets - raccoons, monkeys, iguanas, even snakes - included in the ceremony.

There was an especially heavy turnout on Friday the 13th, with about 30 couples showing up to be wed.


Information from: The Joplin (Mo.) Globe, https://www.joplinglobe.com

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