Even though Return Day was canceled, Sussex County officials continued part of the tradition by reading election results and burying of a hatchet in local dirt and sand.
Return Day, which got its start in the 1700s when people traveled to Georgetown to find out the results of an election, was postponed this year because of COVID-19. It is one of Delaware’s few truly unique events and brought thousands to town after every general election.
Sussex officials, including State Rep. Ruth Briggs King and State Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, both Republicans, organized the last-minute substitute, also held on the Georgetown Circle, to continue the cherished tradition in a smaller way.
As the ceremony opened, Pettyjohn noted that all elected officials take an oath that includes a promise to allow future generations to share the rich historical heritage of the state. He called the hatchet ceremony a key part of that heritage.
“Once the results are counted, the challenges are done and the elected officials take their posts, it’s time for all of us to work for every last one of you,” he said. “We’ll not always agree on every issue, but the work we do — the work we swear to do — is not for parties or special interests, but for all of you, who we are privileged to represent.”
Briggs said she was happy to help continue the tradition and grateful to live in a nation where people had the right to express their opinions.
“But with these rights come responsibilities and I believe it is our responsibility to be civil and to be respectful of different opinions and beliefs at all times,” she said.
Speaking to candidates who were not successful, Briggs King paraphrased a quote that said some of their greatest victories would come after some of their most painful experiences.
“Be patient,” she said. “For many of you, this may be the first time, but not the only time.”
Georgetown Mayor Bill West encouraged the crowd to check out the list of restaurants that were open and eat there.
“I don’t care if it’s a hot dog,” he said. He wanted to help businesses stay open, he said. “I’ve not lost a business in this town, and I don’t want to.”
Sussex County Sheriff Robert Lee read the results of the votes in Sussex County.
“This has been a tough year, if you were running, with so many things canceled,” he said. “There’s been so many absences, of hugs and handshakes and things of that nature that we all come to enjoy,” Lee said.
The crowd of about 200 applauded politely for some Democrats, but sounded off with much louder hoots and hollers when results were read out for Republicans, the usual winners in Delaware’s reddest county. Occasionally someone yelled support for President Donald Trump in his down-to-the-wire election battle with Delaware’s Joe Biden.
The event ended with emcee Mike Bradley showing the crowd a hatchet. He said the head had been found buried on an old Sussex County farm a few years ago and repurposed for this event.
With Pettyjohn and West holding a wooden box with one glass side, Bradley placed the hatchet into the box and asked the chairs of the Sussex County Democratic, Republican, Libertarian and Independent parties to bury it.
They poured in a bucket of sand and dirt that came from four Sussex County locations: a field in northwest Sussex, the Delaware Bay in northeast Sussex, the middle point of the Delmarva peninsula in the southwest corner, and sand from Fenwick island in the southeast.