Sussex County Return Day celebrated its 200th anniversary on Thursday, Nov. 8. In 1791 state law moved the county seat from the town of Lewes to Georgetown, a town that was approximately 16 miles from any other town in the county.
At that time all votes were required to be cast in the new county seat, giving those who lived further from the coast a better chance of voting, without having to travel further.
“Election Day and Return Day were one in the same for the first 20 years,” said Russ McCabe, said Delaware historian and former director of the Delaware State Archives during a recent lecture on Return Day.
However, as voting occurred at the end of October, the height of the harvest season, it was still difficult for some to travel the distance to Georgetown. McCabe said that on Jan. 30, 1811, voting districts were established allowing persons to vote closer to home, and those votes would be collected by the sheriff and taken to Georgetown to be tallied.
“There were a large number of petitions that were submitted to the general assembly. They said that all citizens deserve the right to vote, that it was not a positive thing to live far away from the polls, particularly in bad weather. What they wanted fundamentally was an opportunity to vote locally.”
The law, part of Delaware Code, chapter 152, section 12, makes note of the sheriff offering the “return” of the voting results to the couple in his county.
“The inspectors of the several districts in the counties shall assembly together in the courthouse of their respective counties at ten o’clock in the forenoon of the Thursday next succeeding the day of the election, when they shall produce to each other, and the sheriff, the certificates of the election from their respective districts; and shall proceed, with the assistance of the sheriff and such clerks as may be necessary, and be employed by the said sheriff, in such and to calculate and ascertain the aggregate amount, or whole number of the votes given for the respective candidates or persons voted form and then and there, with the said sheriff, to make out and execute indentures of return in manner and form heretofore directed by law and the said sheriff shall make return.”
“This was the beginning of Return Day as we know today,” said McCabe.
McCabe said that Return Day is the only event of its kind in the United States, and noted that it’s an event that evolved around the process of determining the return of the election.
“The event itself evolved as a wonderful custom, that frankly provided for those of us who lived in the woods, that once a year opportunity to come to Georgetown on a special day for those of us who couldn’t vote weren’t necessarily out of place or in a place you weren’t welcome. It was an opportunity to hear the results of the election but most importantly I believe it was more of a social event than anything.”
As the event grew, a town crier was elected to stand from a podium in the center of the circle or from the courthouse balcony and announce the election results for the county.
A parade was also started, which continues today, featuring fire apparatus, marching bands, tanks from the National Guard, candidates and even large elephants.
“This was a day of healing for both winners and losers,” said McCabe. Adding that the literal act of the burying of the hatchet between the two parties was a symbol of that healing.
The “unique custom” has drawn many famous visitors over the years, including “V-J Day in Times Square” photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt.
Return Day was also a day of fun and merriment for those in attendance. McCabe said that it was always the custom to dress in a formal style or dress as crazy as you want.
Food has also been a big part of the event, with the main feature being an ox roast, which continues today, that was temporarily suspended during World War II, but was restored in 1952 by Harold Purnell.
“Booths, stalls and stands are erected near the courthouse, where all kinds of edibles, such as opossum and rabbit meat, fish and oysters, can be procured,” wrote J. Thomas Sharff in “The History of Delaware.” “The women, who constitute a considerable portion of the crowd, are generously treated to cakes, candies and the best the booths afford. In the tradition of the 19th century booths, ox roast sandwiches fresh from an all night open pit barbecue are distributed to the throngs attending Return Day at no charge.”
On Nov. 10, 1860, the New York Tribune published an article titled “Return Day in Delaware,” the earliest known article, describes the energy that is still felt to this day.
“The carnival obtains a degree of importance in Catholic countries, and festivals, anniversaries and gala-days, invested with interest, are celebrated in nearly all regions with distinctive features, to give character to the display in each locality; but none of these commemorative occasions, probably, are more eminently marked with a peculiar cast than is “Return Day” in old Sussex… Known only here, it has become an institution of the county, and is inseparably connected with its history; it is essentially the big day, and cannot be approximated, in point of interest for numbers and notoriety, by any other. At early morn of the day on which Georgetown is to become the Mecca of citizens from every section of the country, persons begin to invade the town. The impression left upon the mind of one who had for the first time witnessed Return Day in Sussex, if not unqualifiedly agreeable in every particular, would be enduring.”
For more information on Return Day, visit www.returnday.org.