Length of totality in tiny Southern Illinois towns puts them on the eclipse map | St. Louis Public Radio

Length of totality in tiny Southern Illinois towns puts them on the eclipse map

Aug 16, 2017

Adam Kirby stood in the path of totality, deep in the hills of Southern Illinois, and acknowledged that he has absolutely no idea how many guests to expect on his farm on Aug. 21 for the Great American Eclipse.

He’s turning this field of dreams — just outside the village of Goreville — into a one-day-only parking lot for eclipse-watchers: Ten bucks for cars and trucks; $30 for RVs.

He estimates that at least 2,000 vehicles can fit onto the 40 acres of somewhat-level ground he’s mowing for the occasion — or maybe 3,000, if people park in lines and not willy-nilly all over the place.

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“I’m sure some people might laugh if there’s 20 people parked out here, and that’s all we get,’’ he said and grinned a little at the thought of what that might look like.

But he’s gotten phone calls from as far away as Minnesota, and he’s preparing for a crowd.

“I have a feeling this is probably going to be the biggest thing to hit this town — ever,’’ said Kirby, 34. “We have easy access off the interstate. I think it’s just going to be an easy place to get to.’’

Wedged between two interstates — I-57 to the west and I-24 to the east — Goreville touts its accessibility. The village of just over 1,000 is in Johnson County, about 130 miles southeast of St. Louis, at the edge of the Shawnee National Forest and Ferne Clyffe State Park.

More than 30,000 motorists zoom by on the two interstates every day. And more than 4,500 pass through Goreville on Illinois 37, some of them on their way to a nearby campground or winery.

 

The Goreville City Park, seen from the Countree Peddler antique store, will host a University of Illinois educational program on the day of the eclipse.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

But hundreds — perhaps thousands — will make Goreville their destination next Monday. And when the moon totally blocks out the sun at 1:20 p.m., they’ll earn some astronomical bragging rights: Folks around these parts will observe lengthier totality than the other 14 million or so people watching the total eclipse in 14 states.

That’s because Goreville, and tiny Makanda to the northwest, are closest to the eclipse’s longest point of duration: 2 minutes, 40 seconds.

The distinction of being in the shadow of the moon for the longest time has brought national attention to these two dots on the totality map — along with reporters, scientists, and eclipse-chasers.

And it’s inspired a song — “The Eclipse” by musicians Mike Baltz and Shadi Frick of nearby Carbondale — with lyrics that might serve as inspiration to area residents who are a little apprehensive about it all:

Day to night / Light to dark

Sun and moon / Same cosmic arc

We’ll lose the light / Across the land

But survive the eclipse / I know we can

Gas stations and supermarkets in Goreville are selling eclipse t-shirts and viewing glasses.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

“Goreville’s a good place to come”

NASA has chosen Carbondale for its Eclipse Day event, which will be held at Southern Illinois University’s Saluki Stadium. Totality there will be just a few blinks shorter than in Goreville.

But the University of Illinois is setting up shop in Goreville. More than 30 professional astronomers will offer an educational program in the village park, and hundreds of alumni are expected to participate.

Kirby said that organizers contacted him about providing parking on his farmland, which is just a half-mile outside of town. A shuttle will take people into Goreville, but Kirby says he doesn’t mind if people just want to watch the eclipse from his fields. There is no electricity or running water, but he’s rented a few port-a-potties.

“A small town like this doesn’t get this opportunity very often,’’ Kirby said. “So I say the more people that show up the merrier. It’s a day. It’s a few hours. It really shouldn’t inconvenience us that much.”

Some businesses around town are getting into the spirit, selling eclipse glasses and T-shirts.

At Acee's Food and Fuel, one of two gas stations in town, clerk Ashley Taylor-Thorne said they’ve been selling out of eclipse glasses as quickly as the shipments arrive.

Police have told the station’s staff to expect a large crowd and to keep customers moving.

“The cops are saying that it’s going to be completely packed,’’ she said. “So I’m not sure how many people that’s going to be, but I’m sure it’s going to be really packed.”  

At the Countree Peddler, an antique mall across from the village park, owner Lisa Hudson said she plans to open on Eclipse Day, even though her business is usually closed on Mondays.

“Goreville’s a good place to come,’’ she said. “It’s a small town. Everybody’s friendly.”

Her husband is barbecuing, and they’ll be selling pulled pork sandwiches and hot dogs — and letting people park on their lot for $20.

Hudson said that some residents are wary because they don’t know what to expect and are concerned about being able to get around town that day.

“I hope everybody will pick up after themselves and be respectful of other people’s property,’’ she added.

Goreville, Illinois, has a population of 1,049.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Ready or not, here they come

At Village Hall, Aggie Paul was patiently explaining to a caller about parking for eclipse-watchers. Paul, who’s served as village clerk for 15 years, said the calls have been coming for several weeks.

“Most of the calls I’ve taken have been from upstate Illinois,’’ she said. “But there are people coming from all over that have run out of places to stay. So they’re calling our little town.’’

Goreville’s population is currently 1,049, said Paul.

But when it comes to the eclipse, there’s no way to know how crowded it will be — how many people will be waiting in line at the town’s one grocery store or two gas stations.

“We don’t know how many people are coming,’’ Paul said, echoing the common refrain in Goreville.

“We want to make sure that it’s safe, and we have everything organized and controlled,'' she added. "That’s the biggest concern.’’

Police Chief Eddie Holland said the village board has been holding meetings on eclipse preparation. There are plans to disperse emergency vehicles at various locations, so they won’t be boxed in by traffic should an emergency arise. And residential streets in town will be blocked off to keep pedestrians safe and traffic flowing on the main highway through town.

He predicts that the worst traffic congestion will come after totality ends — when everyone decides to leave at the same time.

“With the interstates, we have no idea because if everybody tries to get on at one time it’s going to be amazing,” Holland said.

The Illinois State Police has been meeting with local police departments and is warning motorists not to stop on the interstates to watch the eclipse. Residents are being advised to prepare for the eclipse, as if it were an approaching snowstorm: Stock up on groceries and buy gas before Aug. 21.

Goreville is more accustomed to handling large crowds than many villages its size, the chief said. The annual Fourth of July fireworks display, which is one of the largest in Southern Illinois, draws thousands of spectators. But he expects the eclipse to be — bigger.

Holland points out that Goreville will have a second shot at dealing with an eclipse in seven years. On April 8, 2024, this swath of Southern Illinois will once again be in the path of totality.

“Anything we screw up on this one, we’ll hopefully fix in seven years and be ready for it,’’ he said.

Eclipse glasses for sale at Acee's gas station and market in Goreville, Illinois.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

The dark side of the moon

Leslie Looney, professor of astronomy at the University of Illinois, says the fact that Southern Illinois will be in the path of another total eclipse in seven years is pretty incredible, considering the state hasn’t seen one in 148 years.

Looney said his astronomy department chose Goreville for its Eclipse Day programs because of the village’s proximity to the point of longest duration — and because it has emergency services and experience dealing with Fourth of July crowds.

The university’s location in Champaign, about 200 miles north of Goreville on I-57, is outside the path of totality. The experience of a partial eclipse doesn’t measure up because you won’t see the sun’s corona, Looney said with the enthusiasm of someone who has seen a total eclipse before — which he has.

“During totality it shines like cotton candy wispiness,’’ he said. “It surrounds this dark sun blocked by the moon. It’s a beautiful sight. It always changes from eclipse to eclipse. It’s one of the main reasons to be in totality. To see this beautiful corona. To feel the temperature drop. To hear the animals go quiet. To stand in the shadow of the actual moon.’’

Looney said it’s worth the drive to totality, whether it's to the point of longest duration, or not. (Blue Sky Vineyard in Makanda is claiming the actual point of longest duration.)

“Fractions of seconds are not crucial as long as you have some totality,’’ he said. “Even a minute is a beautiful sight and worth the drive down to Southern Illinois.”

Looney noted that most eclipse-chasers are going to Wyoming, even though totality there will be shorter than in Southern Illinois, because there’s a higher likelihood of clear skies in that western state.

“Clear skies are a concern that we’ve been worrying about for about a year now,’’ he said. “We have a good chance of viewing, probably about 60 percent chance historically of having clear skies on the day. Even a little bit of clouds doesn’t make it a bad experience. You can enjoy totality with some low clouds.”

But if it’s raining on Aug. 21, or even if the skies are thickly overcast, it won’t matter how long totality is.

“You just need to see the sun,” he said.

 

Lowell Solterman looks down at Zeus while standing outside Rainmaker art studio in Makanda, Illinois.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Standing on the line of totality

If some people in Goreville seem apprehensive about the eclipse, the opposite is true in Makanda, where an enclave of artists have embraced the celestial event and all who want to celebrate it.

Not only is Makanda just a few miles from the point of longest duration, but the community is right on the centerline of the 70-mile wide path of totality, if there were one — which there is in Makanda because artist Dave Dardis painted one. It runs from the railroad tracks, across the road and through his Rainmaker Art Studio.

The orange line has drawn lots of media attention and earned Dardis, 69, an appearance on CBS Sunday Morning.

Some reports have wrongly described the line as red, which it most definitely is not, said Dardis, who then delivers a well-used comment: “It’s cause we got a lot of orange paint.’’

People who come to Makanda like to stand on the line and take photos, though on a recent afternoon, they had to step over a large white dog named Zeus who was sleeping with his head on totality.

When the 2024 eclipse comes, the line of totality will be several miles from Makanda, but that won’t matter to Dardis.

“I think a lot of people will just come here,’’ he said. “This line is never gonna go away. We’re gonna milk this forever.’’

Dave Dardis stands in his sculpture garden, located behind his art studio in Makanda, Illinois.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

About 450 people live in the community, which is just south of Carbondale on the way to Giant City State Park. The business district is “the boardwalk,’’ which is actually a small cluster of shops, with a hippie flavor.

There’s one restaurant — the Eclipse Café, which opened a year ago to promote the eclipse — plus a little general store and an ice cream shop.  

Dardis has been in Makanda for 45 years, making his unique jewelry and sculptures from bronze and copper.

“Now, what we have is eclipse craze,’’ he said. “So everything I used to make, I’m not making it anymore, or let’s say I’m just giving it a new name — maybe throw the word eclipse in front of it.”

Dardis said he learned about Makanda’s place in eclipse history from a scientist who showed up on his doorstep one day. He was attending a symposium at SIU-Carbondale.

No one has any idea how many people will come to Makanda for totality, said Jeremy Schumacher who was selling eclipse merchandise and answering questions at the Eclipse Café.

“This is about as little as you get,’’ Schumacher said about Makanda. “We’re just kind of rural people who enjoy the slower side of life.’’

Visitor estimates range from several hundred to 3,000, he said. And parking will likely be an issue. Even with the addition of temporary parking, there are only enough spaces for about 300 vehicles.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with the weather,’’ Schumacher said. “If it’s bright and sunny, we’re going to expect hordes of people. If it’s raining, we might be a ghost town.’’

Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard

Note: The story has been updated to note that Goreville is in Johnson County, Illinois. The county was incorrectly identified in the original version of the story.