Back again for Return Day Delaware candidates 'bury the hatchet' in Colonial tradition

November 08, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

GEORGETOWN, Del. -- Thousands gathered on the circle in front of the courthouse in this small town yesterday to celebrate Return Day, a festive ceremony that marks the end of the political season and dates to Colonial days.

In a political ritual observed each election year since the late 1700s, Sussex County political leaders buried the hatchet -- literally. Libertarian Jack Dalton, Republican Roland Derrickson and Democrat Myrtle Shockley together grasped a tomahawk before placing it in a wooden box and pouring sand on it.

"That hatchet had a lot of nicks on it this year," joked Joseph W. Booth Sr., who wore a top hat and tails as master of ceremonies for the 3 1/2 hour event.

The celebration began with a two-hour parade that included local, state and national candidates for office, including newly re-elected Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Winners and losers shared horse-drawn carriages, and waved to the crowd, which filled the circle and several side streets along the parade route.

Firetrucks, marching bands, antique cars -- even a Food Lion 18-wheeler somewhat inexplicably sandwiched between a religious group on foot and the fife-and-drum corps of a Masonic temple -- made up the rest of the parade.

Return Day's exact origins are not known, but the organizing committee says it may have begun as early as 1792, a year after Sussex moved its county seat from Lewes to Georgetown. County law required that all votes be cast in the county seat, and voters would return two days later to hear the results read -- a tradition that flourishes despite the electronic immediacy that television has brought to political races.

The celebration yesterday offered a red-white-and-blue mix of grass-roots politics and religion spiced with a carnival atmosphere. American flags and political buttons were everywhere, bunting was draped on buildings around the circle and food vendors hawking oyster fritters, hot dogs, funnel cakes and other local delicacies sent aromas wafting across the crowd.

"We came last night about 7 p.m. and put our chairs down," said Barbara Johnson. She and her family of Sussex County were in prime parade and hatchet-burying viewing position across from the reviewing stand.

"We've been coming here for years -- longer than I can remember," said Johnson, 61. She was proudly wearing a button from Biden's first campaign in 1972, as well as buttons supporting several other Democrats.

Did she vote?

"Yes, indeedy."

With her was her son, Richard E. Johnson Jr.

"I'm involved in politics. -- I'm neck deep!" he said, listing his job as treasurer with the Sussex County Democratic Executive Committee and district party chairmanship.

Like his mother, he said he enjoys Return Day's traditions and festive atmosphere -- and he likes the peacemaking aspect of it.

"It's supposed to be everybody coming back together -- so it's government by the people, for the people," he said.

Return Day unites political opponents in a public display, but comments from winners and losers afterward suggested that the real healing may take more than two days and a parade.

"There's not as much said inside the carriages as outside," said Democratic Gov. Thomas R. Carper, who shared a carriage with his unsuccessful Republican challenger, state Treasurer Janet Rzewnicki. She had little to add, saying "This is his day." Asked what she and Carper had talked about during the 20 or so minutes they shared in the carriage, she said, "The weather."

The celebration took over the town, closing streets for the parade route and filling curbs and sidewalks with people. Even an antique store got into the act, propping political posters and buttons stretching from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton on chairs and tables in the window, as well as a copy of Bruce Springsteen's "Born In The U.S.A." album.

"This is a rich tradition we celebrate," Booth told the cheering crowd as the hatchet was buried. "We say, what is gone is gone."

At least temporarily -- some in the crowd were already sporting buttons for a gubernatorial candidate for 2000.

Pub Date: 11/08/96

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