Burying of the hatchet: Return Day’s post-election traditions unique to Sussex County

GEORGETOWN — It is a Sussex County tradition like no other.

Nowhere else in the nation is there a post-election “healing” event and official burying of the political hatchet like Sussex County’s Return Day.

From the courthouse balcony, the town crier in top hat and coattails cries out election results.

Ox sandwiches, well done after overnight roasting in an open barbecue pit, are handed out free to attendees.

And opposing candidates ride together in a gala parade.

Town Crier Kirk Lawson will read the results from the Sussex County Courthouse balcony on Return Day. (Delaware State News file photo)

Town Crier Kirk Lawson will read the results from the Sussex County Courthouse balcony on Return Day. (Delaware State News file photo)

“As far as we can tell we are the only people in the country that has this type of celebrating, with burying the hatchet,” said Rosalie Walls, who was committee president from 1990 until Jan. 1 of this year. “It is supposed to get rid of all of the bad things said about each other during the campaign. I don’t know whether we can guarantee that happening or not. But at least we’ve never heard of any of them putting the hatchet anywhere but in the sand.”

Thursday’s event in the heart of Georgetown marks the 102nd Return Day, as far as history shows. That makes it at least 204 years old.

“Russ McCabe, retired state archivist, has at least historically found it to be true to 1812,” said Sussex County Return Day Committee vice president Jim Bowden.

The date of the first actual Return Day is uncertain.

It could date back to as early as 1792 when state law moved the county seat from coastal Lewes to a central location that later was named Georgetown. Law required that votes be cast in the new county seat and voters would “return” two days later to hear the results.

According to historical archives, in 1811 voting districts in individual hundreds were established. However, the board of canvassers with the sheriff presiding would still meet two days after the election in Georgetown for the final tally.

For Delawareans who are new to the event, it is important that you not put as “s” on Return.

“That is where it gets confusing because they would have to ‘return’ to Georgetown two days later to actually hear the returns. That is why people still call it ‘Returns Day,’” said Ms. Walls. “You ‘return’ to Georgetown to actually hear the town crier crying on the balcony and read the ‘returns.’”

Political party differences in celebration united to create what is now celebrated.

“Historical tradition as I have found it in newspaper articles was that if the Democratic Party were winners of election overall, they would hold an ox roast,” said Mr. Bowden. “On the other hand Republicans would throw a big parade.

“Gov. Charles Stockley, when he was elected actually (in the 1880s) had a boat taken out of the water and he had it paraded around The Circle — with him in it.”

David Eisenhour, chairman of the Sussex County Libertarian Party; Mitch Crane, chairman of the Sussex County Democratic Party; emcee Steven Hammond of WBOC-TV and John Rieley, chairman of the Sussex County Republican Party officially bury the hatchet during the 2014 Return Day in Georgetown. (Delaware State News file photo)

David Eisenhour, chairman of the Sussex County Libertarian Party; Mitch Crane, chairman of the Sussex County Democratic Party; emcee Steven Hammond of WBOC-TV and John Rieley, chairman of the Sussex County Republican Party officially bury the hatchet during the 2014 Return Day in Georgetown. (Delaware State News file photo)

Among Return Day’s traditions: Political opponents ride in horse-drawn carriages and automobiles.

And whenever possible, losers ride backwards and winners face forwards.

Elected office determines who rides in a carriage or in another mode of transportation, often convertibles or antique cars.

Return Day’s carriage tradition does face a horsepower challenge.

“It is a hard thing to do because there is less and less horse and carriage owners and it is a very expensive hobby,” said Mr. Bowden. “We’ve had to try to work out a good working relationship with carriage groups in the area on the Eastern Shore. If that went away it would make it a lot harder to carry on the old tradition.”

“We are lucky that some of them are still willing,” said Ms. Walls.

The parade, reading of results and burying of the hatchet begins at 1:30 p.m. Thursday on The Circle in Georgetown.

Vendors and other activities start in the morning.

On Wednesday evening, there will be live music, a cornhole tournament and food vendors.

Mr. Bowden said it is not just a Georgetown celebration.

“This is truly a Sussex County celebration, from the very first day. It was because citizens in every part of this county came here to do their citizen duties to vote but also to wait to hear the vote,” said Mr. Bowden. “This is actually a celebration of our right to vote, our democracy at its best, that we actually come together as a group of citizens that are celebrating a win by one party but also the fact that we are burying the hatchet and bringing civility back to the norm of Sussex County.”

Added Ms. Walls, “This is a tradition that I hope never ever stops.”

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