Delaware partisans bury hatchet 'Return Day' ends election wrangle

November 06, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

GEORGETOWN, Del. -- Before there was television, before the days of radio, there was this: A man in the town square yelling out the news to locals gathered from villages across the country side.

"It was in the days of the dirt roads," said Harry Veasey, 61, in the center of town yesterday, with thousands of others. "Years ago everyone came to Georgetown to find out who won the election."

It was the days of the dirt roads in Georgetown again as the tradition of "Return Day" -- going back to early 18th century -- was re-enacted once more.

Bill Clinton may have swept America on Tuesday, but yesterday Sussex belonged to George Bush, who won the seaside county by a vote of 20,442 to 19,173. Ross Perot polled 12,713 votes.

The news was broadcast by word of mouth from the Sussex County balcony by W. Layton Johnson, mayor of Georgetown from 1962 to 1988, who wore a top hat and a former Delaware congressman's suit from 1924 for the occasion.

"Years ago this was swamp called Pettyjohn's field and the people would come by horse and wagon and camp in the town circle until the results were read," Mr. Johnson said.

Sussex countians say they are the only Americans still holding to the old way of spreading news. And every four years it is by far the biggest deal in Georgetown.

They call it Return Day because after casting their votes at the courthouse, folks in days gone by returned two days later to find out who won.

About 20,000 people were expected yesterday, however only about 5,000 showed up in a cold and steady rain. The town circle was decked out like Patterson Park for Baltimore's Polish Festival except there was banjo music instead of polka music and an ox roasted on a spit instead of Kielbasa on a grill.

Miss Delaware -- 26-year-old Kathleen Sullivan of Dagsboro -- was hoping not to "melt in the rain" so she could sing "I'm Proud to Be an American."

Tina Street, a 30-year-old Nanticoke Indian with the traditional name Dancing Feather, said her fellow seaside tribal members have been turning out in greater numbers on Return Day "to make it more authentic."

And Travis Pettyjohn, a 42-year-old jazz man, played a bluesy version of "Happy Days are Here Again" in the streets for spare change.

At age 88, parade grand marshal Virginia C. Boyer has seen more of these election year carnivals than almost anyone here.

"I've lived in the same house here in Georgetown for all of my 88 years and I've known this courthouse from the beginning," said Mrs. Boyer, watching Shriners with clear plastic slipcovers over their fezzes ride go-carts in the parade. "I remember when Woodrow Wilson was here and spoke in the circle. When Jimmy Carter was running for president, he spoke there too, but we didn't bother to go see him. We didn't think he had a chance."

Return Day is also an opportunity for peacemaking between political rivals at the end of long and sometimes nasty campaigns.

Winners and losers for various local offices ride in the parade in old cars and horse-drawn carriages; and after Mr. Johnson cried out the results, a hatchet was buried in a big bucket of sand from the beach in Lewes, the county seat before it was moved to Georgetown in 1791.

"The opponents get to sit side by side, bury the hatchet, and put an end to the political thing," said Francis McPherson, 70, a retired school principal. "But sometimes I wonder if they do."

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