Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sussex Return Day

Some Sketches of a Curious Down Country Custom.

How the Sussex People Learn About the elections, Curious Vehicles and Funny Scenes
The Ways of the County Politicians, Governor Hall in a Triumphal Procession, Colonel Martin Makes a Little Speech, A Pleasant Visit at Charles C. Stoakelys.

Georgetown, Delaware; November 8, 1878:

John M. Clayton used to say that the man who had been to a political meeting in Dagsboro, had seen Return Day at Georgetown and visited Paris, had witnessed the three most interesting sights in the world. It is just possible that Paris may furnish more splendid opportunities for the satisfaction of the aesthetic tastes, but I doubt if anywhere else there can be found such an opportunity for observing curious types of a particular people as at the Sussex County seat on Return Day. The congregation of people from all parts of the county on such occasions is probably RELIC OF THE English customs, where the supporters and constituents of the Parliamentarian candidates assemble at the county seat to learn the result of the contest. It was, and is, I believe the custom of these times for the member elect to entertain the people with feast and music. The absence inn Sussex until late years of railroad and telegraphic facilities has rendered it necessary for the politicians to come to Georgetown on the day when the official count is made, and an old English habit has thereby been observed and on every Thursday after a general election is a very red letter day in Georgetown indeed. “ Return Day in Sussex” has become as celebrated almost as the Fourth of July or any other great National Holiday.
A stranger in town on Wednesday afternoon would be somewhat astonished at the unusual activity prevailing throughout the place. Carpenters are apparently barricading the court house, about which long structures, tabled beneath, and covered with a rather secure roofing of planks are built up all sides, even before the windows and doors. These are the cake and candy booths where even a mild kind of beer which the old colored women are fond of making, is sold. Long tables are stretched within the halls and the Circle, from which the town radiates, present a jubilant appearance, clattered up with little stands and various sorts of contrivances to catch the eye and pocketbook of the expected multitude. Painters are busy marking on canvas the results of the election in other State, which are stretched like huge banners of victory from court house windows and hotel porches. From these it cannot be said that they would furnish strictly reliable information, States being claimed for both political parties with a recklessness that would astonish even a partisan newspapers the day after election when only a few counties have been heard from. There is nervous bustle all over town, the hostelries are provisioned with lavishness, the boys are getting their Sunday best prepared and the girls prepare their best gowns and most stunning hats for the morrows display.
I left orders with the hotel clerk to have me called at 3 o’clock in the morning, and by quarter past I was in the comfortable waiting room of mine host, Mr. Rosenbaum, when the clear, sharp morning air bore to my ears the sounds of the first arrival. Nearer came the sound of slowly rolling heavy wheels. The driver of the clumsy vehicle seemed to be in some difficulty in getting snugly up to the hotel door and I went out. A rugged old man was just in the act of alighting from his seat upon a cart it would be impossible to describe. Two pair of home made, broad tired wheels, connected by a pole and supporting something that appeared to be a cross between a coach of a hundred years ago, minus the top, and a modern Western grain wagon, were hitched behind a tandem team, and such a tandem. The leader of the pair was a small, restless jackass , with ears as long as the longest eared jackass that ever was seen. Between the shafts, in apparent dangerous proximity to that jackass’ heel, there was a bullock which would have tipped the beam at 1900 pounds. The wagon, buggy, coach, or whatever it might be called, held four young girls, a youngster of nineteen summers and an old lady in the frilled cap and flowered shaw of the last century. They all got out and came in to the hotel s fire.
“Right smart likely of rain, but when we started out from down home last night it ware clair. How’d the lection go?”. Before the old mans question could be answered there was a clatter outside and he went out to tend the tandem. New arrivals had come and in a short time there was a constant stream of all sorts of vehicles pouring into town. Smart buggies from Seaford and Milford, and more curious tandems from down the county, all sorts of people and any quantity of curious characters. By 7 o’clock there were more than 300 arrivals, not withstanding the threatened rain. Old women bending beneath the burden of 80 years, young girls bedecked with all colors of the rainbow, matrons with suckling babies, Mingling with the crowds , here and there, could be seen that curious Sussex County politician. Good hearted, honest in everything else, and mostly honest in this, they are ever busy with some deeply laid scheme for office or advancement. Here is one of them, my friend, lets call him Henry, from one of the smaller hundreds. Some years ago je defeated at the polls the opponent who had overreached him in the county convention. He is whispering confidentially to a couple of friends over there by the clerks office, I venture to guess he is putting down some wires which are to be used in the next two years. They say that there are fourteen gentlemen in the county who are working for control of the delegation to the State Convention four year to come. What a delightful series of plots and counter plots of intrigue such as old Machiavelli would not blush to own, “ It is one of my great desires of my heart to live to see the contest for the next gubernatorial nomination “ said one of the court judges to me last week.
By 10 o’clock there was a great crowd in town, which filled up two street and completely blocked up the circle about the Court House and hotels. Colonel Martin had arrived as well as prominent gentlemen from all parts of the State and county. The Court house and nearly all the offices, as well as the court room, were given up to the crowd which completely filled them. One family took up its quarters in the corner of a hall and with a hand stove are getting dinner ready. Oyster booths are peddling out stews in a pretty lively rate, two for 25 cents.
The court room presents a scene which hold one’s attention with more interest, perhaps, than any other of the day. Up in the judges chair are a young couple in ecstasy and each others arms, the proverbially bashful rustie had lost his differences and between long drawn happy sighs and warm kisses , the pair munch peanuts and ginger cake with an occasional bite of stick candy. In a corner a fine looking young mother is suckling a chubby pair of twins at the same time. Everybody is at home and entirely careless of each others presence but in many curious circumstances to be witnessed by a close observer there was nothing indecent although somewhat without the bounds of what some people might call ‘good taste’. All were honest people who did nothing for which they thought it necessary to blush.
Outside the refreshment booths are doing a brisk business and although there is a sprinkling of rain the crowd surges about from place to place. Some few fights occur and there is affair sprinkling of drunken men and boys with one or two instances of inebriated women. The fine ladies of the town are to be found escorted about the points of interest by their beaux. The perches about the square are generally occupied by folks who are interested on the many peculiar things to be seen and heard. Like all Sussex county people the folks of Georgetown are clever and hospitable, and society here will compare very favorable with that anywhere in the State. Indeed, beneath all the somewhat provincial habits of the crowd in the town , there lurks a kindly, sturdy good fellowship and honesty that is not found in some more cultivated sections. There is also, evidently, a growing intelligence among the people of Sussex that is seen more and more each return day in the conversation and ways of those who come up to such occasions.

Abut noon the Frederica Cornet Band, from Governor elect Halls house, came into town with their lofty chariot and a stampede was made for the street up which they were approaching, until the Court house and Hotels were almost deserted. The band, followed by not less than 1000 people, marched about the town and was escorted at last to the circle where the banners, bulletins and American flags were flying in the breeze. Here they delighted the applauding crowds with some excellent music until the arrival of the Delaware Railroad train which had on board Governor elect Hall and his escort of personal friends. Crowds pressed about the little depot, filling it completely, covering the platform and roof , such a jam as Mr. Hall found it difficult to pass through but he finally made way to the waiting carriage and with the band leading the gaily decked coach with plumed horses and bannered top , driven by Dr. Richards, and the shouting enthusiastic crowd passing on behind, he was born in triumph to Rosenbaums Hotel where he was received by Colonel Martin and others. The two were escorted to the porch above and in response to the calls of the multitude which completely filled all the space in the circle and the street as far as the eye could reach, Mr. Hall bowed in all directions. Mr. Martin was called out and in a few simple words thanked the people for their recognition and in behalf or himself and Governor Hall thanked them for the support they had given them at the polls. This little excitement over, everyone returned to the court house and refreshment booths.

In the meantime the canvassers had figured up the election result which was announced from the court house steps at 4 o’clock. By 5 o’clock the people of Sussex county began to return home and by 7 there were very few persons in town other than visitors from a great distance and the usual town folks.

In the evening the band and a large number of personal and political friends went out to hon. C. C. Stockely’s house where a hospitable welcome awaited them. The evening was spent in a quite, delightful manner and when the party left, three cheers were given Mr. Stockley. Upon their return to town the party, accompanied by the band, serenaded Gov. Hall at Dr. Richards and complimented the ladies who were at the entertainment with some choice tunes. The town remained alive with music and cheers until 2 o’clock in the morning when every body retired.

The Sussex Return Day article was found in the Easton, Maryland Gazette, the November 23 1878 issue.

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