Before same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide, couples came to Decorah
By Catherine Wheeler / Iowa Public Radio
June 23, 2023, 5 a.m. ·
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Jessica Cummins and C.J. Lucke decided to get married in 2010. But Cummins was living in Alabama and Lucke was in California, and neither state had legalized same sex marriage.
So Lucke had to do a little bit of research.
"So Massachusetts was doing same sex marriage; they were the first one. I thought for sure, like California, Hawaii, that these would be the states. And so I Google online and I get Iowa," she said.
In April 2009, Iowa became the third state legalize same-sex marriage, and the first outside of the northeast to do so. Lucke stumbled on “Welcome in Decorah," a website with information on how same-sex couples could come to the northeast Iowa town for their weddings. Lucke quickly got in touch with the website’s founder.
"I said, 'we're going to come and elope. We don't know anyone. Can you help us?'" Lucke said. "And so she got the officiant who's now passed away, but he was a great guy. She and her husband were our witnesses. There was a guy who played guitar that was a friend of theirs."
Welcome in Decorah founder Amalia Vagts said exchanges like this were common between 2009 and 2015. Vagts and her sister brainstormed the idea when they were celebrating the Iowa Supreme Court decision. They got to talking about how Decorah might be a perfect destination for couples.
"It's beautiful, and it's a generally welcoming town already, and so close to Minnesota. So we just started really just like hatching this idea," Vagts said. "It came together like, quickly, I think we reserved welcomeindecorah.com that day, like maybe while we were talking."
The website took off. Lots of couples, like Lucke and Cummins, were calling and emailing her asking for advice on where to get married, what places could cater receptions, and even if Vagts could find locals to be their witnesses. Vagts said they also wanted to know if it was safe for them to come to Decorah.
"I remember saying to a number of people, like, probably the most likely thing that will happen when you're walking down the street is that people will assume that you're in town for a wedding, and they'll like rush up and congratulate you," she said.
Decorah resident Liz Rog remembers wanting to do exactly that.
"If I could find a way to just be warm and welcoming to those people without slamming on the brakes and getting out of my car to welcome them in overdone sort of way, I would do it because it just felt like there was a lot of that going on here," Rog said.
She became an officiant and was listed on the Welcome in Decorah website. She says she married around 80 couples who came to Decorah over the years. She did weddings all over town: at a waterfall, parks, the Luther College chapel and even her own property, where couples could rent a cabin and stay in the tranquil forest.
"We're nestled in the woods in a little valley that is filled with such a variety of native wildflowers, and trees and all all other manner of creatures," she said.
Rog said she’s proud her property has been home to a lot of love.
"It's clear in the in the arc of time, that it was a moment and then we didn't know what was next. It was just a moment to be fully in," she said.
Ellis Arnold is a minister and co-chair for Decorah Pride. They also did their fair share of weddings when they moved to the town in 2013. That year, right in the middle of the wedding madness years–they did 15 weddings in three months.
"For a number of the couples that I ended up doing their wedding, it was the first time they had been in church open and uncloseted before. And so to even be in a congregation that was open and accepting was kind of mind boggling," they said.
Arnold said they weren’t the only minister in town who was supportive, and that’s been part of why Decorah’s LBGTQ community has grown.
"Decorah Pride, even currently, we joke that half of the folks marching are church floats," they said. "It's a very unique experience to have a really supportive religious community."
They say this whole part of LGBTQ history in Decorah only happened because of the welcoming community that was already here.
"There's a sort of legacy in some ways. And because we have a broad generation of queer folks, there's sort of a shared legacy of, oh, this has been a part of who we are and how we are. I think for Decorah it continues to shape us," they said.
Amalia Vagts, the Welcome in Decorah website founder, said once same-sex marriage was legal throughout the country, fewer couples came to Decorah to marry. But that time made a lasting impact on the wide range of people who were involved.
"It's just been incredible memory to have been connected with something like that, at that point in history, she said. "It's really quite a beautiful thing to have been a part of."
Illustrations by Josie Fischels
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