Civil War history mixes with modern-day fun in festival, parade

MOLLY MURRAY
The News Journal

Civil War re-enactors Bob Hardesty (left) of Magnolia and Jeffrey Batt, of Wilmington, at the 2nd Regiment, Delaware Infantry Company G campsite along the St. Jones River as part of the Dover Days celebration in Dover Saturday.

DOVER — At the Civil War Encampment along the St. Jones River, the soldiers of the 2nd Delaware Infantry had just returned from a long march through the downtown.

They were hot and tired. The camp cook had a wood fire going and a cast-iron pot of stew simmering.

Not far away, crowds of people mingled — a modern-day festival scene. Here, you could buy toplesssandals that stick to your feet, a funnel cake drizzled in chocolate or get some butterfly potatoes — deep-fried. You could even find a vendor doing henna body art. And if you wanted updates on events and activities: Text DoverDays for mobile updates.

Such is the incongruity of Old Dover Days.

Where else can you see Gov. Jack Markell and first lady Carla dressed in Colonial garb while the people lined up to see them were in T-shirts and — on a day like Saturday with picture-perfect weather — shorts?

A massive C-5 cargo jet banked over The Green and a horse-drawn carriage moved up the street a few blocks away.

Cindy Small, executive director of Kent County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said the challenge with the event — now in its 78th year — is to meld history with affordable, modern-day fun.

“We say it makes learning about history fun,” she said. “We try to blend the old with the new.”

Dover Days was started in 1933 as a flower and garden tour put on by the Dover Garden Club.

As Dover Days lore goes, one of the organization’s members, Mabel Lloyd Ridgely, had attended a garden tour in South Carolina and wanted to do something similar in Dover.

Early May, when Dover gardens typically have spectacular displays of spring flowers and trees, was selected. The first year showcased 20 gardens and there was an antique show, quadrille dancing and maypole dancing. Within three years, the event was drawing some 3,000 people.

On Saturday, thousands of people turned out for the parade — an event that in itself had 4,000 participants, including eight marching bands. There were dozens of vendors and hundreds more people taking in the activities that were offered throughout the day.

The Civil War Encampment had special significance because 2011 is the 150th anniversary of the start of that war.

Cindy Robinson of Millsboro and Barbara Balog, of North East, Md., dressed in the attire women would have worn in the 1860s, but Robinson said typically women would not have been part of a Civil War encampment.

But two women wanted to show children the types of games and activities they would have played during the era. “All of the games usually had a purpose,” Robinson said.

She brought a fishing game and a deck of cards.

“Cards were considered evil,” she said.

So to make them acceptable, they were designed to be educational. The set she brought had illustrations of the Union generals.

Over by the tent camp, Randy Dotson, of Wyoming, said he got into re-enacting because his neighbor did.

“I fell in love with it,” he said. “I’m a private. I do what I’m told.”

Meanwhile, his neighbor, Glenn Layton, who is a captain in the 2nd Delaware Infantry, got involved because his son was interested.

“It’s the little stuff” that keeps Layton involved. “The smells, the people we re-enact with. We get to camp places the average person doesn’t get to go.”

The first soldiers from Delaware initially defended attacks against railroad bridges between Wilmington and Washington, said Sean Protas of Newark. Protas is the historian for this group.

The 2nd Delaware Infantry was part of the invasion of Acomac and Northampton counties on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and they fought in the major battles with the Union Army of the Potomac.

Protas said during the battle at Antietam near Sharpsburg, Md., they got the nickname: “Crazy Delawares.”

Contact Molly Murray at 463-3334 ormmurray@delawareonline.com.

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