The 2012 election cycle officially came to an end today with the traditional burying of the hatchet at the 200th anniversary of Return Day in Georgetown.
Thousands of Delawareans attended the daylong festivities, which saw clear skies and relatively warm temperatures for the first time in four years, despite heavy rain forcing the cancelling of several related events planned for Wednesday evening.
“I’m just so thankful because it could have been a lot like it was last night and that would have been horrible,” said Rosalie Walls, the Return Day Committee chairwoman since 1990. “So many people put so much work into this, it’s terrible when the weather doesn’t cooperate, but luckily it did this year.”
Walls said attendees seemed especially pleased to see the vendors and traditional ox roast return to The Circle after security precautions associated with Vice President Joe Biden pushed them onto East Market Street in 2008 and 2010.
“I think everything went well this year,” Walls said. “Right now, I just want to thank everyone for coming out and having a good time today, and then maybe tomorrow I’ll breathe a sigh of relief.”
Although Return Day celebrated its 200th anniversary today, no one truly knows when the tradition got its start.
What is known is that Georgetown became the county seat in 1792, and at that time, Sussex County voters had to travel here to cast their ballots. By 1812, it had become a common practice for those same voters to gather in The Circle two days later to hear the election results.
“With TV and the Internet, there isn’t really a need for voters to come back to hear how the election went, but the tradition lives on,” Georgetown Mayor Mike Wyatt said. “It’s an event entirely unique to Georgetown and Sussex County and it’s a tradition we’re proud to be a part of.”
While crowds began to form in The Circle early this morning, the Sussex County Mayor’s Hatchet Toss is the first major event of Return Day and its newest tradition. Laurel Mayor John Shwed won this year’s event over Wyatt, Bridgeville Mayor Patsy Correll, Blades Mayor Mike Smith and Seaford Mayor Bill Bennett.
Next came the Return Day parade, which features statewide and local general election candidates riding together in horse-drawn carriages.
This year’s parade featured notables such as Gov. Jack Markell and his Republican opponent Jeffrey Cragg, joined by Lt. Gov. Matthew Denn and his Republican opponent Sher Valenzuela.
Congressman John Carney also rode with his Republican opponent Tom Kovach.
U.S. Sen. Tom Carper walked the parade route with his Republican opponent Kevin Wade, while Alex Pires, the Independent Party of Delaware candidate, opted to ride alone.
“I’m the senior Senator and I’ve been elected statewide 13 times, but somebody else stole my chariot,” Carper joked afterward. “I think the real winner at Return Day is neither the Republicans nor the Democrats, but the state’s the winner because we all say, ‘the campaign’s over, let’s figure out how to govern,” and that’s very special.”
After the parade, former Georgetown Mayor and longtime Town Crier Layton Johnson read this year’s election results from the balcony of the Sussex County Courthouse.
Return Day culminated, as it always does, with members of the various political parties, including Sussex County Republican Committee chairman Jerry Wood and Sussex County Democratic Committee Chairman Ed O’Conner, took part in the ceremonial burying of the hatchet in a box of sand from Lewes, the county’s original seat.
Attendees at this year’s Return Day included first timers, long standing loyalists and a few who made the trip back for the first time in years.
“I’ve always know it’s a big event but I’ve never been before this year,” said Frankford resident Michele Chandler, who brought her 2-year-old daughter Jillian and 6-month-old daughter Chloe. “I wanted my kids to see this, especially my 2-year-old, because it seemed like fun and there’s nothing else like it.”
Helena Hjoerringgaard, a 16-year-old exchange student from Denmark, said she’d never seen an event quite like Return Day.
“They don’t do this in Denmark,” she said. “We also don’t get off for Election Day, so I think this whole week has been amazing.”
Her host parent, Mike Purnell of Rehoboth Beach, said he grew up with Return Day as a former Georgetown resident, but hadn’t been back in years.
“My favorite part is the ox roast, because when they cook it over charcoal it has a different flavor that’s really good,” he said. “I also want to see all the politicians bury the hatchet, and not necessarily in someone’s skull.”
Georgetown resident Lewis Briggs said this year’s event was closer to the Return Days he remembers as a child.
“I attended my first one in 1952, less than a month after I was born, and the only ones I’ve missed were when I was serving in the military,” he said. “This one here today is great. Between the weather and security concerns, the last two were terrible, but today it’s a nice fall day in Georgetown.’
Ken Towers, a Georgetown-area resident who spent the day serving up ox to hungry attendees, agreed
“We don’t have any snow, wind or rain and I’m so excited we’re back on The Circle,” he said. “It feels like Return Day has been returned to the people instead of the politicians, and that’s our goal.”