Vehicles on U.S. Highway 68, which runs through Christian County and much of western Kentucky, drive past a new sign that advertises the upcoming total solar eclipse. Signs like these have popped up across Hopkinsville and Christian County in recent months, in preparation for the total solar eclipse in August.
Story and photos by Helen Gibson
In 2007, Hopkinsville resident Cheryl Cook received an email that she’ll never forget.
She’s the director of the Hopkinsville-Christian County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, so it’s not uncommon for people to reach out to her via email and request information about the area or make suggestions. But this was different.
It was from a scientist, who asked what Hopkinsville was doing to prepare for the total solar eclipse that would occur on Monday, August 21, 2017. Apparently, her western Kentucky town would be one of the best viewing spots this rare celestial event, and the impact would be huge.
At first, Cook didn’t believe it was real.
“I have a lot of friends who play practical jokes, so I didn’t really know what to think, but you can’t be sure it’s a joke either,” Cook said. She said she sent a polite response. Then, she did a Google search and realized he wasn’t kidding.
It’s been 10 years, but Cook still has that email today. It was the first anyone locally that she is aware of heard about this total solar eclipse, and it set in motion a score of planning efforts that would prepare the city and its residents for what could be the most exciting thing to ever happen to Hopkinsville.
But at this point, it was still a decade away.
Welcome to Hopkinsville
Located 72 miles northwest of Nashville, Hopkinsville is home to around 32,000, according to 2015 U.S. Census estimates.
Downtown Hopkinsville exudes small-town charm. It’s generally pretty quiet — its peace only interrupted occasionally, when a train barrels through on tracks between South Campbell and South Clay streets.
East Ninth Street cuts through the train tracks and Clay and Campbell streets and is home to a donut shop, a tattoo parlor and an old Presbyterian church, among other establishments.
Present-day Christian County was settled as a rural, farming area at the end of the eighteenth century, said William Turner, who has served as the city and county historian since 1975. A Christian County native, he’s spent his life studying local history.
Turner said the county’s first settlers were white men who became eligible for 160-acre land grants after serving in the Revolutionary War for at least two months. Upon moving to Christian County, many laid down their roots.
Today, 62.6 percent of the city is white, while 31.9 percent is black, according to U.S. Census estimates. This is a much higher rate of diversity than Kentucky cities of comparable size. Other minorities make up less than nine percent.
It’s a conservative place. In the 2016 election, electoral maps painted Christian County red as 63.9 percent of voters cast a ballot for Donald Trump. According to Census data, 22.5 percent of people are in poverty. From 2011-2015, the median household income was $34,614.
Today, Hopkinsville’s largest employer is the Walmart Distribution Center located south of town. The next five largest employers are various factories and manufacturers.
Hopkinsville is the sixth-largest city in Kentucky, but it has stayed rural all these years. Many Hopkinsville and Christian County residents depend on agriculture to earn a living, whether that’s through farming or working for equipment, seed or crop insurance and loan companies.
Just outside Hopkinsville, farmland is abundant. In the spring, vibrant yellow canola fields stretch for acres and acres. In the summer, many fields are home to corn or tobacco. Planted in rows and rows, it sometimes looks like these crops go on for miles. In August and September, it’s not uncommon to see combines working well after dark, their headlights illuminating the darkness.
This year, some of those fields will be rented out to campers and eclipse viewers.
On August 21 in Hopkinsville, the moon will start to cover the sun in the middle of the day, and the sky will start growing dark, as if it were nighttime.
Then, for around two minutes and 40 seconds, the moon will completely cover the sun. The only light visible from the sky will be a hollow, circular glow. Called a corona, this is the edge of the sun shining beyond the moon’s coverage.
From anywhere in North America, viewers will be able to see a partial solar eclipse, but a total solar eclipse will only be visible in a select path of cities across the United States. This path of totality will stretch from Lincoln Beach, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina, but Hopkinsville will be one of the best viewing locations.
It’s about 15 miles from the point of greatest eclipse, which is located in the tiny community of Cerulean, Kentucky. Only one other location, just southeast of Carbondale, Illinois, boasts a longer viewer period, and that’s by 0.4 seconds.
The last time viewers could see a total solar eclipse across the continental United States was in 1979, according to NASA. It’s website calls this event one of “nature’s most awe inspiring sights.”
Back in 2007, as the first to know about the solar eclipse, Cook said she started spreading the word as soon as she could.
“I kept bringing it up at meetings where our community leadership was, and they would look at me like I was crazy, but I kept having to do that until they really started thinking about it and realizing what a big deal it was when we started hitting national papers and they were getting calls from friends who had read about it somewhere else in another state or whatever,” Cook said.
Current Hopkinsville mayor Carter Hendricks worked at the Chamber of Commerce at the time.
“At that point in time, I don’t think any of us locally had heard anything about the total solar eclipse,” Hendricks said, sitting in his tidy office in the municipal building downtown. “And initially, I think we all kind of heard this and thought, ‘is this serious? Are there that many people that are that excited about eclipse chasing?’”
There must be. The city of Hopkinsville is now expecting 50,000-100,000 visitors on the weekend leading up to the total solar eclipse, planning official Brooke Jung said. She also said the economic impact could be around $30 million.
Though Cook brought it up for years, planning in earnest for the total solar eclipse didn’t begin until Hendricks took office as the city’s second-youngest mayor around two years ago.
“When I became mayor, January 1, 2015, I looked at the eclipse as a wonderful opportunity not only to host eclipse chasers, but more importantly to really begin rethinking and reinventing ourselves as a community, so that as folks from all over the world came here, they would find an experience that would cause them to perhaps want to come back after August 21, 2017,” Hendricks said.
He said he and his staff reached out to Cook, who’s office handles tourism for the city and the county, and tried to help initiate planning efforts. Cook reminded them of her small staff and limited resources, which would not be enough to plan the type of event Hendricks had in mind.
That’s when Hendricks decided to budget for the salary of someone who could effectively plan for an event of this nature.
At the time, Brooke Jung was working in marketing at the Chamber of Commerce. She applied for the newly-created position, and on Sept. 6, 2016, she officially became Hopkinsville’s solar eclipse marketing and events consultant.
Under a $40,000 annual contract that’s split by the city and county governments, Jung organizes and manages all of the marketing and logistics behind the eclipse, which has grown astronomically since that first email Cook received a decade ago.
By her first day on the job, it was only 349 days away.
Showing the world what Hopkinsville has to offer
Jung sat in her office on a cold, cloudy mid-March day in Hopkinsville. It’d been an unseasonably warm winter, with temperatures often in the 60s and 70s throughout February. But now, just a few days before the official start to spring, snow flurries danced in the air.
A black space heater warmed her office, which doubles as a meeting room inside the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Eclipse memorabilia — embroidered throw blankets and hats, special eclipse viewing glasses and a countdown clock — sat on a medium-sized, brown bookshelf against one wall.
In the last year, the eclipse has started to become much more than a two-minute-and-40-second occurrence in Hopkinsville. It’s become a full-weekend event.
“We have the most events planned of any other city along the path of totality, and I think that that speaks volumes to the level of excitement that residents have for this event and welcoming people,” Jung said.
There certainly are a lot of events planned for solar eclipse weekend. Already, there’s a “Summer Salute” music festival, a comic con called “EclipseCon,” and a couple Christian events on the calendar.
There’s even a festival commemorating a supposed alien landing that took place in Christian County on August 21, 1955 — the same exact date the total solar eclipse will captivate the skies over 62 years later.
Other events and activities are listed at Eclipseville.com, a website Jung helped launch which proudly boasts Hopkinsville as “the point of greatest eclipse.” It includes information on eclipse-themed events, accommodations, merchandise and more.
Like the mayor, Jung sees the eclipse as a way to show people from all over the world what Hopkinsville has to offer. And the world seems to be interested. Daily, she said she gets phone calls and messages from far away places such as Brazil, Japan, France and the United Kingdom.
“This is something that literally the cosmos handed to us, and what a perfect opportunity for us to show the world and to put Hopkinsville in the national and international spotlight,” Jung said. “You know, it’s great.”
Jung is also responsible for coordinating the logistics for the eclipse weekend, and she helped form transportation and safety, health and sanitation, and utility committees.
According to the countdown clock that day in her office, there were 160 days until the eclipse, and Jung still had a lot of work to do.
In recent months, Jung’s been invited to speak to many local organizations — the Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce, the school system — about the eclipse and Hopkinsville’s planning efforts. And she’s told group after group that Hopkinsville is preparing for an eclipse-viewing crowd of anywhere from 50,000-100,000 and an economic impact of $30,000.
That economic impact, Jung said, was calculated using a tourism calculator provided by the state. It estimates that overnight visitors will spend $162.50 per night, and day visitors will spend $132.50 per day. It also accounts for a “churn factor,” or “the number of times a dollar turns over in the economy,” Jung said.
Of course, Jung admits it’s a hard number to estimate, but even if 50,000 people do come to Hopkinsville in August, that will be the most attention the town has ever received, historian William Turner said.
“And of course, the big speculative question in the minds of everybody today is ‘how many will come?’” Turner said. “And most are skeptical that that many will. They may. That’s one of the joys of the unknown element of the future, but we’ve never had a crowd like that come to a single event that I know of.”
Ask people around town their predictions for expected turnout or economic impact, and you’ll likely get some very different answers. Some, like Turner, remain skeptical. Others, like Cook, optimistically and enthusiastically predict crowds of over 100,000.
Regardless, because of the potential economic impact, Jung, the mayor and other local officials see the eclipse as an investment.
This fiscal year, the city officials allocated $58,500 to the Parks and Recreation department. This will be spent on preparations for eclipse weekend. Tab Brockman, superintendent of the Parks and Recreation Department, said the department could spend anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000 on eclipse planning and preparation before all is said and done.
In the last fiscal year, the city allocated $25,000 to Public Works, which houses the Parks and Recreation Department. This money wasn’t specifically designated for the eclipse, but it funded flower planting, landscape planning, improving roadways, hanging welcome banners downtown and other initiatives that would help beautify the city.
“It does dovetail very nicely into welcoming our visitors for the eclipse,” Brockman said.
Changes in the city
Already, the eclipse has led to some significant changes in Hopkinsville and Christian County.
For years, Christian County was an anomaly; it was one of the only counties in the area where alcohol sales were legal.
Trigg County, its neighbor to the west, was dry until an alcohol ordinance was approved in December 2009, and residents of a small community in Todd County, its neighbor to the east, voted this January to remain dry.
Today, Christian County is home to two distilleries — MB Rolland and Casey Jones, but until recently, these establishments couldn’t sell alcohol on Sundays. For a state that prides itself on its bourbon trail, this was significant.
Both locations frequently see out-of-town tourists, Casey Jones co-owner Peg Hays said. And both are planning big events for eclipse weekend.
MB Rolland Distillery is advertising the “Kentucky Bourbon Mashoree,” a tasting event the weekend leading up to the eclipse that will feature live music, food trucks and about 15 different Kentucky distilleries. It is also renting Saturday and Sunday night campsite packages for the weekend of the eclipse, ranging from $400 to $600 each.
Casey Jones Distillery is hosting a similar event that Friday night, and Hays is hoping to host people at rental campsites on their property the whole weekend. These sites range from $35 to $75 per night.
Because of the alcohol sales restrictions, Hays worried she would lose business from out-of-town guests, especially during eclipse weekend. So, when an ordinance to allow Sunday distillery sales was brought before the Christian County Fiscal Court this spring, she supported it wholeheartedly, passing out flyers and speaking on the benefits of such an ordinance at fiscal court meetings.
“Sunday, [August] 20 is the day before the eclipse,” Hays said. “There will be thousands of people in this area. It would be very nice to be able to sell our stuff that day because they’re going to be here.”
In March, when it came time to vote on the ordinance, the fiscal court was torn. Four of the eight magistrates voted no; distillery sales should not be allowed on Sundays. The other four magistrates voted yes. Judge Executive Steve Tribble broke the tie, with a “yes” vote.
Casey Jones and MB Rolland Distilleries can now be open for tours and tastings on Sunday afternoons from 1-6, and they can sell packaged spirits and souvenir bottles to their visitors.
This isn’t the only change in Hopkinsville and Christian County that can be attributed to the eclipse. Mayor Hendricks has a long list of city improvements that have been spurred by preparation for the eclipse.
Early in his term, Hendricks oversaw various improvements to the city, including the construction of a skate park and a dog park.
In May 2016, Hendricks proposed the Hopkinsville WINS campaign, which stands for wellness, infrastructure and neighborhoods equal success. This city-wide improvement project calls for constructing a sports complex, extending the town’s greenway system, creating two new neighborhood parks, expanding the sidewalk system, partnering with the county to build an agriculture expo center, expanding the convention center, restoring a historic downtown theater and supporting a local museum.
While all of these initiatives won’t be complete by August 21, they all have a similar goal of building up and refurbishing the city of Hopkinsville. This all goes back to Hendricks’ goal to improve the city of Hopkinsville so people whom visit will want to come back.
When it comes to the eclipse, Hendricks doesn’t see planning and city-improvement initiatives as being optional. To him, they’re absolutely necessary.
“We’ve had some people questioning why are we putting so much energy into this, why are we doing so much planning, why are we trying to capitalize off of this once-in-a-lifetime event?” Hendricks said. “And I think that’s an interesting question. Their assumption is we have a choice.
“We don’t have a choice. Science dictates that we’re the point of greatest eclipse. So whether we get ready for 25, 30, 40, 50 thousand people or not, there’s a pretty good chance they’re coming here for the weekend leading up to August 21, 2017.”
Another day closer
On a gray, dreary evening at the end of March, more cars than usual filled the parking lot of the Hopkinsville Community College, situated off of North Drive. Many of these vehicles didn’t belong to students. They belonged to community members, business owners and local government employees who were gathered for the city’s second solar eclipse public forum.
People slowly trickled into a medium-sized auditorium in the middle of the community college’s small campus. A reporter for a local radio station sat in the front row and got ready to record the event.
The tourism director for Cadiz, the next town over, sat in the middle seat of an empty row of chairs. He had a spiral notebook and a blue ink pen in hand, ready to take notes.
Peg Hays, co-owner of Casey Jones Distillery, sat close to the front. Julie-Ana Carlisle, the owner of an eccentric shop on East Ninth Street, and a couple vendors from a local farmers market were also in the audience.
Brooke Jung took the stage first, and for 25 minutes, she briefed the crowd on the city’s planning efforts and initiatives, repeating some of the same facts she had in front of many groups before.
Then she introduced Chris Cable and Laura Peticolas, two scientists from the University of California – Berkley who are traveling to various locations in six states along the path of totality to talk about the science behind the eclipse and a citizen science project they’re promoting during the eclipse.
“I think by this point you all know that you’re in a very special location, and there will be a total solar eclipse next August 21,” Peticolas said, addressing the crowd.
She later said Hopkinsville was “definitely ahead of the game,” and she was impressed by the amount of preparation city officials had put into planning for the eclipse.
At the end of their hour-long presentation, Jung joined Cable and Peticolas on the stage and gave them each “Eclipseville” t-shirts, advertising Hopkinsville’s location along the path of totality. She also presented them with a key to Eclipseville on behalf of the mayor who couldn’t attend the forum that night. Both presenters smiled and laughed as they accepted the gifts.
Minutes later, most of the crowd filed out of the auditorium, but a few stuck around to ask questions and start conversations with Jung, Cable and Peticolas about the eclipse.
Peticolas was standing at the foot of the auditorium’s stage, and Hays walked up and introduced herself. She handed Peticolas a stack of flyers advertising Casey Jones Distillery and a bottle of Solar Eclipse Moonshine, a special drink she and her husband trademarked in preparation for the solar eclipse.
Peticolas laughed, and Hays said she had one for Peticolas’ colleague as well, whom a local reporter was interviewing on the other side of the room at the moment.
It was well after dark by the time the final few people spilled out of the auditorium and returned to their cars in the parking lot. They were another day closer; now, there were only 145 days until the solar eclipse that is making Hopkinsville famous.