Most people in southern Delaware know that the last weekend of October is generally centered around the annual Sea Witch Halloween & Fiddler's Festival in the "Nation's Summer Capital" of Rehoboth Beach.
And with good reason – this decades old festival is undoubtedly the biggest party of the year in Delaware's most popular seaside resort, with tens of thousands of people descending on Rehoboth during the three days of Sea Witch.
But it hasn't always been the successful mid-fall event that it is now. In the early years, what's now one of the biggest events of the year in the First State was nearly cancelled permanently after poor attendance numbers and horrific weather events caused organizers to consider pulling the plug.
But Sea Witch was the brainchild of Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach President and Chief Executive Officer Carol Everhart, and she wasn't willing to let it go without a fight. And I think we're all happy about that decision, now that we have such a fun, whimsical and popular event to look forward to every year.
Today, we're going to take a look back at how Sea Witch began and how it morphed from what was once a small event held over just a few hours on a Saturday afternoon to the three-day hugely popular festival it is today.
Let's take a look…
To begin, it might be fun to explore exactly how the festival got its name. I mean, has anyone ever witnessed a witch at sea? Was there ever a real creature in local lore that residents have grown up telling stories about?
Well, actually there was. In a sense, that is.
According to local author Michael Morgan, in his writings for the "Delaware Diary," the legend of the sea witch dates back to as early as the late 18th century and the sinking of the HMS DeBraak in local waters.
The first known writings of such a creature referred to her as the "Weather Witch," a stubborn old hag who constantly plagued explorers who were searching for the DeBraak's rumored treasure.
Many a sailor throughout history theorized that the ship's bounty was protected by a Sea Witch, who brought storms and misfortune to those trying to locate and salvage the British ship.
The sunken hull of the DeBraak was finally recovered from the waters off Cape Henlopen in 1986, but no treasure was ever found. The legend of the Sea Witch endured, however, and there's now the popular local festival that bears her name.
But while it would be fun to think that the Sea Witch Festival was actually named for the mythical creature that tormented local sailors, it was actually a clipper ship by the same name that Everhart had in mind when naming her signature festival.
According to Wikipedia, the Sea Witch was designed by naval architect John W. Griffiths for the China trading firm of Howland & Aspinwall, and was launched at Smith & Dimon in New York City on December 8, 1846.
You can see her pictured above, courtesy of the Wikipedia post. It's not a great photo, but hey it was the 1800s, right?
It was, coincidentally, just three years after the DeBraak was found, in October of 1989, when the inaugural Sea Witch Halloween & Fiddler's Festival was held in Rehoboth Beach. So let's just say that both stories can share at least a little bit of the notoriety on this one, though Everhart is clear that she had the clipper ship in mind when developing the festival.
The first Sea Witch Festival was not the huge event that it is today, by any means, but was rather held on a Saturday in a dirt parking lot in what's now the First Street Station Shopping Center.
The night before the event, in what would become a theme of the festival's first few years, a nor'easter blew through and essentially wiped out everything that had been set up for the Saturday gathering.
The inaugural festival was not well attended, and it didn't get much better. In 1989, and for the next three years that followed, heavy rains fell on the region during Sea Witch Weekend. Everhart nearly gave up on her creation, but decided to give it one more go in year number five.
The rest, as they say, is history!
At long last, Mother Nature shined on Sea Witch that fifth year. People came and enjoyed the event, they told their friends, the media picked up on it and it's gotten bigger and better every year since.
Over nearly three decades, the festival has grown from 5,000 people attending in a dirt-covered parking lot to nearly 200,000 residents and visitors descending on Rehoboth Avenue for Sea Witch Weekend. There are now three full days of events, with the parade down the Avenue on Saturday morning still reigning as the main event of the festival.
Delmarva Now Photo
In fact, since the parade started in 1995, it's only been cancelled once and that, as you might have guessed by the theme of this blog entry, was due to a nor'easter in 2011.
Not even Superstorm Sandy, which reeked havoc on the east coast in 2012, cancelled the parade. The damaging storm actually came through Saturday evening, but long after the parade had wrapped up and people were safely at home.
After surviving those early years, Sea Witch has certainly prospered and provided a much-needed economic boon to the area during what was once called the shoulder season in coastal Delaware.
Other notable events in Sea Witch's history includes the addition of the first Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade style inflatable (of which there are now many) in the mid 1990s and the always popular Sunday Pet Parade on the Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk, which began around 10 years ago.
Portraits in the Sand Photo
The Rehoboth Beach area has definitely become more of a year-round destination in recent years, but that wasn't always the case. And that's what led to the creation of Sea Witch – town officials wanted a way to bring visitors to the resort after the busy summer season had concluded for the year.
Their goals have certainly been realized, many times over.
The festival has been named among America’s 100 Best Events numerous times over the years by the American Bus Association and was named one of the 10 Best Fall Festivals for Families in 2014 by Family Vacation Critic, among many other kudos.
The festival’s economic impact, according to figures from the Southern Delaware Tourism office, is estimated at nearly $30 million annually.
It's survived and obviously grown by leaps and bounds over the years, thanks to the long-term vision of Everhart and her team at the Chamber of Commerce.
It was, as she's said in the past, just a way for everyone to come together and have some fun during a season that's generally known for good-natured fun and family-friendly hijinks anyway. She saw the long-term potential for such a festival early on, and her diligence and perseverance paid off in what we all enjoy today.
Portraits in the Sand Photo
Every now and then, the Weather Witch makes her presence known at the festival that bears her name. But despite the hag's nefarious efforts, the fun has never stopped and probably won't be coming to an end any time soon.
So if you have a chance to visit and witness the Sea Witch Halloween & Fiddler's Festival first-hand, definitely think about spending the weekend celebrating with the fun-loving folks in Rehoboth Beach.
Long live the Sea Witch!