“There is no institution more sacred than the home you are about to make,” Scott Joles observed, inside the cheerful yellow sanctuary that is Dells Bells Wedding Chapel. He and wife Tara have married roughly 2,000 couples since 2004.
This ceremony began 10 minutes early because all witnesses arrived together, after a pre-wedding meal at Applebee’s. A son-in-law, clad in jeans and flannel, walked down the aisle with the bride, whose ivory dress was delicately beaded and sleeveless.
The groom is 56, his beloved is 45, they met eight years ago and this was the second marriage for both. Their simple, touching and wintry ceremony cost $295, including a silk bridal bouquet and groom’s boutonniere. One week later, vows were repeated on a beach in Cozumel, her first real vacation in 19 years.
That’s two ceremonies: one for family, one doubling as a honeymoon.
Valentine’s Day softens frigid February, and tying the knot typically is a much more expensive proposition. Today’s average wedding costs more than $25,000, without the honeymoon, estimates The Wedding Report at costofwedding.com.
Tara Joles had a hunch that couples wanted more affordable and less stressful options, especially in Wisconsin Dells, which she describes as a Midwest Las Vegas. Chapel signage mimics the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” in design, and souvenir T-shirts add this line: “Vegas style weddings in Wisconsin Dells.”
Tara used to work at the Columbia County Clerk’s Office, which administers marriage licenses. Husband Scott was a longtime mechanical drafter. Before meeting, they each had big weddings and, as Tara put it, “I spent more than I had.”
That’s why Las Vegas was their destination when deciding to marry. They expected a fast, hokey ceremony and left pleasantly surprised.
“Even though there was a service every 15 minutes, once it was your space, they made you feel welcome and comfortable,” Tara recalls. “It was very traditional, very classy” and only $190, including photos.
A balance between intimacy and efficiency is what they strive for at Dells Bells, although the Joles rarely meet couples before they arrive to be married. Planning typically happens on the phone and through emails.
That makes it more personal than a justice-of-the-peace appointment but less involved than traditional church weddings. Couples start with the basics and can arrange to add a cake, limo ride, fresh flowers, wedding rehearsal and much more.
At least, a couple receives 30 minutes of chapel time, beginning at the top of the hour. Most book the space two weeks to two months ahead of time, but there are exceptions, like Amber Ewald, 26, and John Schwefel, 30, who recently contacted Dells Bells after booking reception space for the summer of 2015.
“We love the Dells and plan to retire here,” says John, who estimates they visit eight or nine times a year. The Oconomowoc couple envisions a gazebo wedding with 150 guests, “a vacation for everyone, near the end of the summer, at one of the happiest places we know.”
The standard ceremony is Christian but non-denominational, Tara says, “unless people prefer a civil ceremony, which doesn’t ask for God’s blessing at the end.”
The minister recognizes people who have supported the couple and contributed to their values and morals. “We don’t take scripts from couples, but they can come up with their own vows,” Tara says.
No two weddings have been the same, she insists. “Each has a different dynamic, even though what we provide is similar” from one service to the next.
Texans and Californians planned weddings here, as part of their Wisconsin Dells vacation. A military couple fit in a ceremony before starting combat duty. Serious illnesses have prompted couples with big-time wedding plans to move up the date and simplify.
Nuptials are exchanged in casual clothes, Halloween costumes and formal wedding attire. Some couples need witnesses (provided at no charge), and others bring a crowd.
The chapel seats about 40, and bigger groups head to the Dells Bells gazebo, which overlooks the Wisconsin River. A “minister-to-go” option has taken Scott or Tara to resorts, condos and even an ice-fishing shanty.
The Joles officiated 14 ceremonies on July 7, 2007, which was a one-day record. Scott makes a point of not asking whether anybody objects to the marriage, so the only guaranteed showstopper is the lack of a marriage license.
No bride or groom has gotten stood up at the altar at Dells Bells. A couple might pay their deposit, then not show up, but that’s rare. The people who show up when the Joles work are usually pretty happy.
“I drove a desk for almost 17 years,” Scott says. “I was pretty decent at it and made a living, but this is fun. You really feel like you’re doing something big.”
“Love is contagious,” Tara believes. “You can’t help but get pulled into it, and you never tire of it. It’s like starting a new life” whenever witnessing the exchange of vows.
Couples who marry during this 10th anniversary year get a bonus: sparkling wine and wine glasses.
Scott and Tara Joles both are ministers with Universal Life Church, which promotes freedom of religion and arranges free, fast, online ordination at ulc.org.
Although this route to ordination requires no theological training, Universal Life Church ministers are recognized as legal wedding officiants in Wisconsin and elsewhere.