Parade will start at 9 a.m.
Every year in springtime, Dover finds a new way of celebrating itself -- but 2018 is going to see a few changes in the traditional festivities.
For the first time the annual Dover Days fete, planned for this coming Saturday, will coincide with another Capital City favorite, the biannual NASCAR races. But far from competing with each other, organizers of the two events are working together to highlight both.
“When we learned about the new dates, we shared that information with Kent County Tourism,” Dover International Speedway spokesman Gary Camp said. “We immediately started working on how we could collaborate on something even more special since we were having two iconic events happening in Dover.”
Kent County Tourism President Wendie Vestfall agreed.
“At first, people thought it might be a bad thing, but we’ve seen it as a chance to highlight Dover for people coming to the area, maybe for the first time,” Vestfall said. “It’s a perfect relationship. We’re working to make it really one big, fun weekend.”
Nationwide exposure for Dover
Even though this year’s Dover Days is a single day -- Saturday, May 5 -- the celebration culminates six days of celebrations in the central part of the city. The party formally began April 30 with guided tours of the Old State House, Legislative Hall and a walking tour of The Green and its environs.
The NASCAR races will come Friday, May 4 through Sunday, May 6, with the 200-mile OneMain Financial race straight up against the Dover Days observance Saturday.
The premier race, the AAA 400 Drive for Autism Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, will be held Sunday.
Vestfall expects race fans will see the party in downtown Dover as a chance to get away from the track Saturday.
And people who might have come to town for Dover Days also could find themselves drawn to the racing oval.
“Dover Days and NASCAR are different audiences,” Vestfall said. “What we expect is that people who didn’t notice the racing in the past will now. And people will be able to get out of the RV parking lot and see what Dover is all about.”
And while the NASCAR races will be broadcast over Fox Sports, it looks as if Dover Days also will get some national attention this year courtesy of retired NASCAR driver Kenny Wallace, Camp said.
“He’s really an outspoken ambassador for the sport,” Camp said. “He’ll be in the parade and will be there for other activities.”
Wallace will be trailed by a Fox film crew, he said.
“They’ll be able to get a lot of footage that will air Sunday before the broadcast of the race,” Camp said. “That’s a nice opportunity for Dover.”
Racing fans and Dover Days attendees who journey over to the racetrack also will enjoy a 9 p.m. Saturday fireworks show, Camp said.
“Knowing that such a fun event will be Saturday, we hope it will add to the experience of people coming into town,” he said.
NASCAR has been promoting the crossover with Dover Days, just as the city has been touting its links with motorsports racing, Camp said.
“We want to encourage fans to get downtown and explore all the things Dover has to offer,” he said. “They can go downtown but still come in for a race. We’ve been trying to make this a win-win for everybody.”
Dover Days has its own history
Roots for the annual Dover Days festival go back to 1930 with the inaugural Dover Flower Show, sponsored by the Garden Club of Dover. The initial affair was such a hit that by 1933 the gardeners began advertising it simply as “Dover Day.”
These early events focused more on a somewhat staid tour of gardens and notable city homes rather than the many family- and kid-oriented venues of today.
Although 2018 is recognized as marking 85 years since the first Dover Day, this actually is the 76th year of the event. It was not held for eight years during the 1940s, primarily due to World War II, and organizers canceled the 1968 event because Dover residents who normally opened their historic homes to the public declined to do so that year.
Although Dover Day initially was a Saturday-only event, by 1955 it had expanded to the full weekend, taking on the moniker of “Old Dover Days.” By 1995, another day, Friday, was added to the schedule.
Quality over quantity
Even though Dover Days itself has been trimmed to a single day, Vestfall said there’s still plenty to do.
“Our concentration is to make it the best festival it can be,” she said. “We’re focusing on quality over quantity. We could have people out there for three days, but if we have just one jam-packed filled day of activities going on, that’s better than spreading it out just to make it three days.”
The Dover Days parade, the city's largest, will begin as usual at 9:30 a.m. at Hazel Road and travel south five blocks on State Street.
It will be led by Gov. John Carney. Other dignitaries include Sen. Tom Carper and Mayor Robin Christiansen.
But they won’t be taking the usual route. Instead of going to and circling The Green, marchers will turn left at Loockerman Street and the parade will end on Federal Street at the Townsend Building.
This change frees up space on State Street, which will be closed the entire day from Loockerman to Water Street. Not having the paraders march around The Green also will allow that area to set up more displays and support more vendors.
“People will have a better chance to visit The Green and just soak it in,” Vestfall said. “We’ll be able to use that space a little better instead of having the parade go through and then everyone leaving.”
There also will be a better chance to observe the annual Maypole dancing.
“Those will be happening on the hour, so if you miss one, you can see it again,” she said.
A birds-eye view of Dover
Unlike prior events that centered on Legislative Mall, only about half of the space in front of Legislative Hall will be used for Dover Day activities. Some of the space will be taken up by a hot air balloon, which, if the weather holds, people can ride to get a view of the city from 150 feet in the air.
“It’s tethered to the ground, and it’s a really cool feature,” Vestfall said. “It will make an opportunity for some awesome selfies.”
The balloon was Kent County Tourism sales and event manager John Doerfler’s idea.
“His big dream was to have a hot air balloon,” Vestfall said. “It’s unique, it’s different, and we’re happy we could make it a reality.”
This year’s Dover Days also will see the debut of “3 for 300,” a short film chronicling the stories of three Dover residents, giving viewers a chance to see what it is like to live in Dover. The film will play repeatedly from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. in the Biggs Museum of American Art.
Also on tap is the annual car show, which will take place near the Townsend Building, allowing car buffs an opportunity to examine some rare vehicles up close and to marvel at the restoration work that keeps these classics on the road.
Although Dover Days past generally have been blessed with good weather, Vestfall does concede the possibility of rain.
But that doesn’t matter.
“Rain or shine, we’re there,” she said. “The show will go on.”
Some inclement weather hasn’t really affected past attendance, Vestfall noted, “although we’ve been joking it might even snow.”
Archives and archaeology
Since much of Dover’s early history centered on The Green, its natural Dover Days activities will be happening there or within a few blocks of that public square.
The state’s First State Heritage Park will open all of its sites in and around The Green during Dover Days, Park Superintendent Sarah Zimmerman said.
Even as far back as the city’s colonial days, The Green has been the site of fairs and markets and was the place where Delaware soldiers gathered before marching off to join the Revolutionary War, she said.
The public will get a rare opportunity for a behind-the-scenes look at the Delaware Public Archives in a tour beginning at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Zimmerman said.
Many people have visited the Archives’ research room, where a portrait of Mabel Lloyd Ridgely, the guiding force behind the early years of Dover Days, looks down upon genealogists and other historical researchers. But few have seen its inner workings, she said.
The building is several stories tall and has no windows. Temperatures inside its vault are kept at a constant 60 degrees at 65 percent humidity. All of this is to protect priceless documents, including the charter from King Charles to the Duke of York which led to the founding of the Delaware colony
There’a also Delaware’s original ratification document -- signed Dec. 11, 1787, in a now-demolished tavern on The Green -- which approved the United States Constitution.
The signers beat out Pennsylvania delegates by one day, earning Delaware its “First State” moniker.
“It’s a chance to learn about the Archives and to see how they preserve and protect important Delaware records,” Zimmerman said.
Time travelers may want to seek out the historic John Bell House, which will be the site of a Saturday archaeology demonstration, she said.
Once a workshop standing on The Green across from where the Constitution was ratified, the building stood vacant for many years before restoration work took place beginning in 2005.
“We’ll have archaeologists out here, and they’ll discuss things they have found,” Zimmerman said. “Visitors will have the chance to watch a dig happening and touch some of the objects they’ve found.”
H3story, H3ritage and H3ps
Visitors who like their beer will get the chance to taste the wares of some of Delaware’s craft breweries at the fourth annual History, Heritage and Hops from 3 until 9 p.m. Saturday on Loockerman Plaza.
Known simply as H3, the event came about because area business owners wanted to get some activities going downtown, group spokeswoman Amy Mullen said.
The initial event, OktDoverFest, was in 2014 and drew about 650 people; the 2017 fest brought in more than 6,000, she said.
Even during the initial event four years ago, the group realized they needed something similar in the spring which would coincide with Dover Days. Thus, H3 was born.
The event is a real block party that will cause the closure of Loockerman Street between State Street and Governors Avenue.
It’s a family-friendly event that also features food trucks, downtown restaurants and live bands including Susquehanna Floods, Big Dipper featuring Scott Bloodsworth and favorite Mike Hines and the Look.
Money raised from H3 contributes to projects to upgrade and beautify the downtown area, Mullen said.