Corey Williams and Sara Smelser’s love story goes way back. They met in sixth grade and flirted with romance in high school. “He likes to say that I would try to hold his hand in class by challenging him to thumb wrestling,” Sara says. Fast-forward 15 years later — the two reconnected when Sara moved back to her hometown in Southeast Missouri, and they quickly discovered they still had feelings for each other. By the time they started dating, two months into their rekindled friendship, they had already shared lots of deep conversations, and “we knew each other really well,” Sara says.
A week after their first date, Sara told Corey she was going to marry him. Yet she was still surprised a day after their first anniversary when he pulled out two glasses of whiskey (Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select — their “milestone whiskey” reserved for special occasions), kneeled down, and proposed with an oval-shaped rose gold ring that he had custom-made to resemble her grandmother’s cherished cocktail ring.
Invitations had already gone out for their April 2020 wedding when COVID hit and forced them to postpone the date to September. But they surprised family and friends by getting hitched anyway. “We had already been engaged for a year and a half, and we were so ready to be married, so we decided to elope on April 25, our original wedding date,” Sara says.
The lovebirds tied the knot in a chapel in the woods at Mallard’s Croft, a farm in Byhalia, Mississippi, near where they were living in Olive Branch. “The April wedding was so beautifully intimate — it was just us, our photographer Kasey Hampton, and my cousin Hadley’s husband, Joe, who married us,” Sara says. “We just celebrated afterward in our backyard since we couldn’t go anywhere.”
As lovely as their nuptials were, Sara wasn’t ready to give up on her dream wedding. “We have really great friends and family, and it just felt like something was missing by not getting to celebrate with them,” she says.
For their second wedding with friends and family, Corey and Sara knew they wanted to exchange their vows in a church. They found the perfect venue in the Germantown Historic Church. Originally built in 1841, the church was burned during the Civil War, but rebuilt in 1870. Simple but beautiful with white walls and hardwood floors and pews, “It just had something about it — it has stood the test of time,” Sara says. “It seemed like the right place.” For the reception, they chose The Peabody Hotel, “a staple of Memphis and the South,” she says, with a lively atmosphere and its own incredible history.
Fun and formality guided their choices for the day. “Corey likes to hunt, and I work in agriculture, so our day-to-day life is not extravagant,” Sara says. “We love to go on adventures, spend time outdoors, and fly fish together. But we also appreciate getting dressed up, so we wanted a black-tie event, with some casual elements worked in.”
When it came to the decor, Sara opted for colorful, vibrant flowers with a touch of sentimentality. Germantown florist John Mark Sharpe expertly adapted her spring wedding vision into a bright fall palette, weaving some of her favorite flowers like hydrangea and hyacinth into loosely structured arrangements of deep pinks, oranges, purples, and reds. “We also used blue and white vases from my mom’s collection of Blue Willow chinoiserie for the arrangements at the reception,” Sara says.
She chose a tailored silk ball gown with a hint of sparkle at the waist (plus pockets!) and a stunning back and sleeves fully encrusted with intricate beadwork, while her bridesmaids glowed in hot pink gowns. Her “something borrowed” was her grandmother’s bracelet, an heirloom all of her female cousins have worn at their weddings. Corey and his groomsmen wore black tuxedos with Brackish bow ties fashioned from bird feathers — a nod to Corey’s love of duck hunting.
The bride and groom skipped the first look, which Sara has no regrets about. “It was fun having the anticipation of seeing each other,” she says. She did do a first look with her bridesmaids and dad, however. “We tried to be very intentional about how we spent our time that day, because we had gotten so much advice about how it’s such a whirlwind, and you don’t remember any of it,” she says. “So we wanted to make sure we created special moments with certain people.”
The day unfolded beautifully, starting with her long-awaited walk down the aisle with her dad. A string quartet played classic Scottish hymns, and a family friend did a scripture reading. With the minister who married them in April presiding, the couple recited vows they had written to each other. “We used traditional vows when we eloped, so we wanted to do something different this time around,” Sara says. “It added a personal element that highlighted our love for each other and gave us an opportunity to share that with our friends and family.”
Then, in Presbyterian tradition, the small crowd of 50 promised to help the couple uphold their vows. Sara’s mom topped off the heartfelt ceremony with a powerful vocal rendition of The Lord’s Prayer. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the church,” Sara says.
Sealing their union with a kiss, the newlyweds rang the church’s historic bell and made their exit amid a shower of cheers, bubbles, and rose petals.
After taking photos outside the church, they hopped into their mini-Cooper for a photoshoot at Mud Island’s Greenbelt Park along the Mississippi River. “We grew up on the Mississippi in Missouri, so it’s part of us,” Sara says. “We used to go there for date nights and just look at the river and talk about life.”
Working with their photographer Kasey was fun because of her ability to put the couple at ease. “She’s incredible at evoking emotion out of people,” says Sara, “You can really see the love between the couples she photographs.”
Next, they headed to The Peabody Hotel, where they took rooftop photos at sunset and enjoyed a romantic dinner for two before hosting 200 of their closest family and friends in the hotel’s ornate Continental Ballroom. Guests noshed on beef tenderloin, lobster risotto, and Southern-inspired hors d’oeuvres, along with mini-versions of chess pie, Derby pie (in honor of Sara’s Kentucky roots), and crème brûlée, Corey’s favorite dessert.
For their first dance, the bride and groom danced to “Dressed Up in White” by CAL. After a sweet father-daughter dance to Abby Anderson’s “Daddy,” Sara and her dad brought guests to their feet with a rousing version of “Mustang Sally,” complete with a car prop. “That got everyone out on the dance floor,” she says.
The Peabody Rocket kept the party going with Motown classics and oldies music, while guests danced, played rounds of cornhole, and posed for photos in front of a live greenery wall featuring Sara and Corey’s duogram.
After slicing into a four-tiered cake with scrumptious layers of strawberry with cream cheese filling, vanilla with caramel filling, and chocolate chip pound cake with chocolate mousse filling, the newlyweds toasted with glasses of their milestone whiskey. As the evening came to an end, they sent guests off with late-night snacks of chicken biscuits and fries as well as Oreos and milk (another of Corey’s favorites). “It was a beautiful night that was so much fun — and that was our goal,” Sara says. “We wanted it to be a joyful celebration, and it was.”
Because COVID threw a wrench into their plans to honeymoon in Greece, the couple savored their weeklong escape at a cabin in the North Carolina mountains. They recently embarked on their first adventure as husband and wife with a move to Huntsville, Alabama, where Sara works for an agriculture retailer and Corey started Scout Outfitters, a fly-fishing subscription box business.
Her advice for brides-to-be? “Listen to your gut,” she says. “Choose what you love and what feels best for you.” And consider hiring a wedding planner, she adds. “I was hesitant to do that initially because of the added expense, but my wedding planner, Betsy McKay, kept me focused on what was important and from stressing out over all the details,” Sara says. “The day felt like magic because she was there behind the scenes making sure everything was going smoothly.”
Thank you for taking us back to your special day, Sara and Corey! And a huge thanks to Kasey Hampton for the gorgeous photos.
Wedding planner: Betsy McKay, Salt Style & Events
Photography: Kasey Hampton
Flowers: John Mark Sharpe
Invitations: Stovall Collection
Food and cake: The Peabody Hotel
Bride’s dress: Low’s Bridal
Bridesmaids’ dresses: Alfred Sung
Groom’s attire: Tuxedo by Paul Betenly, bow tie by Brackish
Rentals: White Door Events
Venues: Germantown Historic Church and The Peabody
Band: Peabody Rocket
Rings: Zickfield’s Jewelers and Sissy’s Log Cabin
See more stunning weddings from across the South and beyond in our Weddings archives!