As they have since the late 1700s, Sussex Countians will again gather ‘round the Circle in Georgetown two days after Election Day to hear the results, bury the hatchet, and, well, party.
Return Day is a tradition that is unique to Sussex County, as far as anyone can tell, and even in the age of social media and 24-hour news, the celebration of democracy still draws people to Georgetown to hear the results of the latest election.
Perhaps more surprisingly, the main events of Return Day haven’t changed much in the past 200 or so years. There will be election results read by a “town crier” from the courthouse balcony. There will be a parade in which candidates ride together in carriages, the losing candidate obliged to ride “backwards” in the carriage. There will be speeches, and food and music. And yes, there will be a literal “burial of the hatchet” in a fancy box of sand from Lewes Beach, by representatives of the major political parties.
“I think the whole country and everyone would benefit from the lesson of Return Day,” said Return Day President Debbie Jones. The lesson? “Bury your stuff and work together,” she said. The celebration, Jones said, “offers something that a lot of people are missing, and that would be community spirit. I do think there is a lot to be learned from our tradition,” Jones said.
Jones herself has been the lead organizer since Rosalie Walls gave up her longtime post several years ago. Jones said she can’t remember exactly how long she has been involved with Return Day, but estimated “at least since the ‘80s.”
As to the perennial, or rather, biennial question, since longtime U.S. Senator Joe Biden became Vice President Joe Biden, which is whether he will make an appearance this year, Jones demurred. “I do not know,” she said. “I would say, though, that Return Day means a lot to Joe, and it’s as much a part of him as it is anybody. So we’ll just have to wait and see.” Biden did not attend the parade since the Return Day 2008, but has made appearances at the Return Day receptions held at Delaware Technical and Community College.
Asked whether she thought Return Day should extend beyond Sussex County to other parts of the country, Jones said, with a laugh, “that would depend on who’s going to do the work.” She said the committee generally starts planning the next Return Day almost as soon as the current one ends.
This year, the festivities will begin with music and food on the afternoon of Wednesday, Nov. 7 and will continue with the parade and other activities throughout the day on Thursday, Nov. 8.
There will be a few additions to this year’s Return Day parade that organizers are pretty excited about. The University of Delaware’s Fightin’ Blue Hen Marching Band will perform in the parade for the first time. They will be joined along the route by the ever-popular Approaching Storm Marching Band from Delaware State University as well as about 10 other bands.
Also new this year, and adding a bit of historical pomp to the biennial parade, will be the U.S. Army’s Old Fife and Drum Corps. A part of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as The Old Guard, the Old Fife and Drum Corps is the only unit of its kind in the U.S. armed forces.
In addition to the usual armada of carriages assembled from local and regional owners, this year’s parade will feature a “special guest” carriage — one of the signature Wells Fargo & Company stagecoaches. The horse-drawn coaches are a recognizable symbol of bygone days, and have a special significance in Delaware electoral history, according to Return Day Vice President and Chief Constable Jim Bowden. (He’s the guy who will, supposedly, slap the cuffs on anyone heard to utter the blasphemous words “Returns Day” instead of the correct singular form.)
Wells Fargo stagecoaches, Bowden said, were used to transport voters’ ballots from many towns to the state capital, where they would be counted. “It’s kind of a cool connection” to the continuing tradition of Return Day, Bowden said.
Jones said the event committee has been trying to procure the Wells Fargo stagecoach, as well as the Budweiser Clydesdales, for several years. “We are always looking for more things and different things” for the event, Jones said. “Wells Fargo stepped up and we’re very excited,” she said.
Bowden said the stagecoach will be brought to Georgetown from North Carolina, but wasn’t sure exactly when it would arrive. The committee received word in mid-October that the stagecoach would be available for the parade.
“They’re really enthralled with the concept of what Return Day is,” Bowden said of Wells Fargo officials — so much so that one of the company’s senior vice presidents will attend Return Day to see what it’s all about.
While many of the carriages in the parade will carry politicians and dignitaries, the Wells Fargo stagecoach’s passengers will be 5-year-old Ryker Lyons of Seaford, and his family. Ryker lives with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a degenerative disease, and Bowden said he had gotten to know his family and thought the stagecoach ride would be a nice treat for him and his family.
In 2014, Ryker’s mother Brooke Lyons walked 37 miles from her home in Seaford to the steps of Legislative Hall in Dover to bring attention to her son’s illness.
Jones said there will be about 15 carriages in the parade, all locally owned by individuals or by the Marvel Carriage Museum in Georgetown.
Return Day festivities kick of Wednesday, Nov. 7 with free performances by three popular bands. The Jones Boys will take the stage on The Circle from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., followed by Junior Sisk from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., Big Hat No Cattle from 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Junior Sisk coming back with another set from 8:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. and the Funsters rounding out the night with a performance from 9:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
The traditional ox roast will be under way Wednesday, and food trucks will be on hand for anyone who doesn’t want to wait till Thursday for some Return Day delicacies.
As with any picnic worth its salt, Return Day Wednesday night will feature a corn hole tournament. The tournament will commence at 6:30 p.m. in the Georgetown Volunteer Fire Department at the corner of South Bedford and Pine streets. Up to 32 teams will compete in double-elimination, best-of-three contests, for $350 in cash prizes and bragging rights.
Thursday morning, Return Day itself starts with the traditional reception for local, state and federal officials and “honored guests” at Delaware Technical and Community College in Georgetown — otherwise known as the best schmoozefest in Delaware. This is where campaigns unofficially get started and the “Delaware Way” is on full display. The breakfast reception will be from 9:30 a.m. to noon. Tickets are $50 per person. The reception will be held in the William Carter Partnership Center, 21179 College Drive, Georgetown.
For those who would rather start the day with a little less politics, there will be food available on North Bedford near The Circle starting at 8:30 a.m. The Mayor’s Hatchet Toss, always a competitive but friendly event, will begin at 9 a.m.
There will also be an array of arts and crafts vendors as well as informational booths around The Circle.
Entertainment on the Main Stage begins at 9:30 a.m. with performances by talented Sussex County youth till 11 a.m. A variety of performers will continue to entertain the crowd from the Main Stage till the parade steps off at 1:30 p.m.
The parade will begin at Sussex Central Middle School, and will proceed on West Market Street, then to King Street, then to East Pine Street and back to the middle school.
The traditional Return Day ceremonies will begin immediately after the parade on the Main Stage, followed by the “real” reason for the day — the reading of the election returns by Town Crier Kirk Lawson from the Sussex County Courthouse balcony. (Newcomers to the Return Day traditions should keep in mind that the “returns” are those of Sussex County voters only, and therefore may or may not reflect those of the rest of the state, or, in presidential election years, the nation.)
There are quite a few traffic issues to be aware of in and around Georgetown in preparation for and during Return Day. The Circle will, for obvious reasons, be closed to vehicular traffic from about 4 p.m. Wednesday afternoon till Thursday afternoon.
Arrow Safety Road and West Market Street at Route 113 will be closed from about 10 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 8 until the conclusion of the parade. Traffic is expected to be heavy in the early morning on Thursday as parade participants and attendees gather.
All roads should reopen by 8 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 8.
For more information on all things related to Return Day, check the event web site at www.returnday.com or call the Return Day office at (302) 855-. For traffic information, check DelDOT online at www.DelDOT.gov or on web-enabled cell phones at www.DelDOT.gov/mobile for updated information. WTMC 1380 AM will also carry up-to-the-minute traffic conditions.
By Kerin Magill