Prior to 1852 Delaware Bay watermen were accustomed to harvesting oysters year round, with no restrictions. But that year the Delaware legislature became concerned about overharvesting, and banned oyster fishing from May 1 until August 10, a Thursday. On that day, fishermen flocked to the state’s seaside docks in droves, eager to head out and begin to gather their winter supply of oysters.
A tradition began. The 2nd Thursday of August for years after became “Big Thursday,” a day of celebration in the watermen community. The day was also a time for farmers to take a breather: the crops had been planted and were growing along nicely; harvest time was still ahead.
“Farmers and their families used to drive ox carts and covered wagons to the beaches the night before so they could be in readiness for the gala time the next day,” explained a 1925 article in The Evening Journal (Wilmington).
“Old time frolics, with fiddle and banjo playing and dancing, with occasional attempts at fisticuffs, featured the day. There was much rivalry among many of the best known dancers to see who could stand the pace the greatest length of time. Some of them have been known to do ‘buck and wing’ dancing from early in the evening until the next morning, with only intermissions long enough to sip the famous Sussex ‘apple jack.’”
And the food!
“They cook the fish, clams, crabs and oysters caught and picked up in countless numbers, over wood fires, built upon the sand, and sleep at night under cover of their wagon,” said the Milford Chronicle in 1883 about the Slaughter Beach gathering.
“Probably 500 wagons and carts of this kind will cover the beach for a mile in front of the hotel, and as many more carriages from points nearer will visit the beach during the day. Quaint dancing known in this locality as ‘setting to’ will occupy a greater part of the day. A ‘set to’ is about as follows: A ‘fiddler’ scrapes out a tune composed of one bar of music (generally a tune called ‘The Devil’s Dream’) and in front of him on a board or sanded floor, two men, or boys, and not infrequently two women, will shuffle for two or three minutes, when, at a signal—usually a harsh scrape of the bow over the strings of the violin, the two dancers change places and go over the same shuffle. This is continued until exhaustion or thirst compels them to stop.”
Delaware’s black community responded to ‘Big Thursday’—understood to be a whites only event—with its own summer oyster celebration. “The great event of the season to the people about here,” said The Morning News (Wilmington) in 1897 “will be ‘Black Saturday,’ which will occur this Saturday at Cedar Beach (ed.—the Saturday after Big Thursday). Several thousand colored people will be present and will have almost complete control of the beach. It is expected that a large number of white people will be there to see the sights. The usual number of fights are looked for. Fakirs are also expected to reap a harvest.”
What did the 1897 writer mean by ‘the usual number’? Well, in 1868 an editorial page commenter in the Delaware Tribune (Wilmington) had said “They seemed to get along pretty well, until the afternoon, by which time several had taken too much whisky, and soon got to fighting, and this was kept up at times all the afternoon, to the great discredit of the affair.”
An August article in The Morning News of 1914 noted that Slaughter Beach “probably draws a more mixed crowd of persons on ‘Big Thursday’ than any other beach in Delaware.” ‘Mixed’ might be a code for the races intermingling, or could be a code for respectable folks and not so respectable folks intermingling. Whatever, the event continued for many years more.
Newspaper articles prior to the 1920s tended to place Slaughter Beach as the central location for Big Thursday, but in 1925 The Evening Journal (Wilmington) noted “Thousands of people throughout lower Delaware will visit Rehoboth, Oak Orchard, Slaughter, Bowers, Prime Hook and Broadkill Beaches on Thursday of next week.”
By 1930, the Thursday festivities had spilled over into the night before. “Big Wednesday Night in Slaughter Beach featured contest dancing jigs and square dances,” reported The News Journal (Wilmington). “Ten year old ‘Babe’ Plummer of Slaughter Beach was a highlight.”
The 1940s in retrospect are probably the peak of the Big Thursday event. In 1940, for example, 3,000 showed up at Slaughter Beach by noon. “Programs are more or less informal and speeches are out—although more than a few politicians are on hand. The main entertainment is square dancing and jigs with two and three of these going on at one time,” said The News Journal.
By 1959 overharvesting, parasites decimating oyster populations, and especially the widespread ownership of the car, had weakened the event’s importance.
“Many believe that ‘Big Thursday’ is gone forever, but the Slaughter Beach Volunteer Fire Company has decided differently,” report The News Journal.
“In years past, this was an extra big event in August at the shore. Thousands came from many places to spend the day, renew old acquaintances, play horseshoes or baseball, and stroll the boardwalk with their own or someone else’s girl.
“This was horse and buggy days, but since the advent of automobiles, short trips to the beach have taken its place.
“A committee of Slaughter Beach firemen decided the event can be revived on a modern scale. They have planned a regatta of all boat classes, boat racing with medium and fast craft, band concerts, old fashioned seafood dinners, fireworks and many other activities for a full week.”
But the culture had changed. The fire department wasn’t able to sustain interest in Big Thursday, and the celebration dropped off the calendar.