This month, we're taking armchair tours of Georgetown, first featuring The Circle and then Georgetown's incredible museums and the town's upcoming 2017 Museum Stamp Tour. The village of Georgetown was established in 1791 when Sussex County moved its seat from Lewes to Georgetown to accommodate the growing population on the western side of the county. The area that is now Georgetown was chosen mainly because of Georgetown's central location - it was said to be "16 Miles from Everywhere" in Sussex County. The town's grid plan was laid out around a central circle, hence the town's new motto, Well Rounded, and it was bounded by a unique, circular outer border that was not broken until 1986.
The area within The Circle is a historic district and appears on the National Register of Historic Places. Legend has it that a slave girl named Liz was responsible for plowing the center of the town square and planting the trees there, though that has never been proven. Just 100 feet off The Circle, at 10 South Bedford St., sits the Old Courthouse, which sat on The Circle until about 1836 when it was moved to its current location so the existing courthouse could be built. The Old Courthouse was restored and reopened on Return Day 1976 and is the oldest wooden courthouse still in use by the court system, though now only for special occasions. Also on the property is the whipping post that was last used in 1950. In fact, on The Circle in front of Citizens Bank stand the old stocks as well. The cupola of the current courthouse was added in 1914. The cupola is closed to the public but it's said that from inside it, looking east on a clear day, you can see the ocean.
Because Delaware was a border state during the Civil War and contained both Union and Confederate sympathizers, Abraham Lincoln ordered troops to surround the courthouse to preserve order during the national elections of 1862 and 1864. During the 20th century, the balcony of the courthouse was used following local high school proms when the couples would promenade around The Circle, then appear, in turn, on the courthouse balcony where they would be announced. The balcony is also where the official Georgetown Town Crier announces election results during Return Day celebrations every two years.
Around The Circle sit other county government office buildings as well as the renowned Brick Hotel, Restaurant and Tavern, built in 1836 by Joshua Layton and Caleb Sipple, who also built the 1837 Sussex County Courthouse across the street. In fact, during the building of the new courthouse, The Brick served as a temporary courthouse. The Family Court building on The Circle was built in 1988 and its design was based on the governor's palace in Williamsburg, Va.
Also on The Circle, The Paynter House is the red building which was built in the 1800s. The Paynter family included a physician, a bank president and a Delaware Supreme Court justice. The building currently houses law offices, but in front of Paynter House still exists a stepping stone that was placed there to help Mr. Paynter get out of his carriage. The Mansion House (blue building) is the oldest building on The Circle. The rear portion dates from 1799. The front dates from 1830-66.
Georgetown is well known nationally for its biennial Return Day celebration which dates back to as early as 1792, and is a unique-to-Delaware state holiday and celebration. Two days after each November election, voters gather at The Circle to hear the town crier announce election results. The gathering is attended by local and state politicians and officials as well as voters and, occasionally and delightfully, Joe Biden. The celebration includes officiants with top hats, a colorful parade with floats and bands and winning and losing candidates riding side-by-side in horse-drawn carriages and antique cars. There's a mayors' hatchet toss pitting local mayors against each other, entertainment, vendors and local brews. An ox roast at an open pit barbecue outside the Sussex County Courthouse promises a free roast beef sandwich in every hand. Most importantly, the day features the ceremonial burying of the hatchet to celebrate the official end of the campaign season.
When you visit Georgetown today, be sure not to miss:
• Chardon Jewelers, 30 The Circle, offering fine jewelry and gifts including awards, plaques and trophies. They also offer jewelry services including cleaning, appraising and repair.
• Georgetown Antiques Market, 105 E. Market St., 27 + years family owned and operated antique store. Refinished, wicker, crude, vintage and shabby chic. Furniture, glassware, jewelry, wicker, iron, outdoor furniture, linens, art and more. Also specializing in custom old barn wood tables.
• Patty's, 517 S. Bedford St., popular sandwich shop featuring subs, sandwiches, gourmet foods, cheese, charcuterie, party trays, snack foods and more.
• Georgetown Family Restaurant, 115 E Market St., offering a nice variety of items for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Great place to catch up with a friend or have lunch with a co-worker.
• 16 Mile Brewery, 413 South Bedford St., offers a tap room and tasting room, public tours, beer-infused food and more, tavern rentals, etc., and is a great place for farmers, merchants and politicians to meet, converse and talk official business.
As always, safe travels and please watch your speed as you travel through our small towns. Speed limits are enforced. To do more armchair exploring of Southern Delaware, go to VisitSouthernDelaware.com, then go take a ride.
Hildegard W. Rieger is owner of Relaxing Tours LLC.