ECLIPSEVILLE, U.S.A. — The United States Postal Service still knows it as Hopkinsville, Ky., ZIP codes 42240 and 42241. A Little River still runs through it. Sixty-two years ago, on Aug. 21, 1955, some little green men supposedly hovered in its woods for a few hours, floating just above the grass.
But for this past weekend and today, Hopkinsville Mayor Carter Hendricks quite happily has proclaimed his community "Eclipseville, USA." He has at least some good reason, since NASA on Saturday labeled the town of 31,000 "the point of greatest [solar] eclipse."
Yes, that eclipse, that astronomical phenomenon that hasn't been witnessed to this degree in 99 years and won't be seen again until 2044.
"[We] have tried to have some fun while planning for the total solar eclipse," Hendricks wrote in an email last week. "As a result we adopted the nickname Eclipseville several months ago in our marketing and branding campaigns. In addition, we officially proclaimed Hopkinsville as Eclipseville USA from August 18-21, 2017. You can even find a mural welcoming visitors to Eclipseville along Ninth Street near the Whistle Stop Donut Shop."
Saturday morning you could find Marie Thompson of Colorado exiting Whistle Stop with a half dozen of its finest creations as she snapped pictures of the mural.
"My husband and I are astronomy geeks," she said between bites and napkin wipes. "We first read about this being the best place to watch the eclipse about a year ago. We'd never been to Kentucky and we've never seen a total eclipse. We just had to do this."
According to Hendricks, "We are anticipating over 100,000 visitors." He also wrote, "We expect the direct economic impact to be well over $30 million to our businesses, organizations and entire community."
If hotel rates at the Best Western on Fort Campbell Boulevard are any indication, that total shouldn't be too hard to reach.
"We normally charge $99 a night," weekend desk clerk Tracy Smith said. "The rate's $399 a night for this weekend, and we're already sold out for Sunday."
Ferrell's Hamburgers, a Hoptown institution since 1936, hopes it doesn't sell out of its legendary menu items, which are pretty much limited to burgers, chili and pecan pie.
"We've ordered triple what we normally do for a weekend," manager Miranda Mertz said Friday. "We don't know what's going to happen [today], but we expect it to be crazy. We've seen an increase in customers every day this week. We've already had folks come in from California, Florida, Virginia and Indiana, Michigan and Texas. I just hope we've ordered enough."
In the interest of full disclosure, I spent much of my childhood in Hopkinsville. My mother was born and raised there. Though I was actually born on the opposite side of the Commonwealth in Harlan, I've always called Hoptown home. Like many young boys living in small Southern towns, I dreamed of one day playing football for the local high school, in this case the Hopkinsville Tigers, who'd won Class AA state titles in 1965 and 1966.
When the town was named an All-America city in 1965, I also wondered what it might be like to be mayor of such a distinguished community.
Alas, we moved to Birmingham, Ala., during my junior high years, never to return. And as once-similarly sized nearby towns such as Bowling Green, Ky., (65,234) and Clarksville, Tenn., (150,287) enjoyed population explosions, you began to wonder if Hoptown's best days weren't behind her.
Not this week, however.
CBS Sunday Morning's Martha Teichner dropped by in early August to interview Geraldine Sutton Stith about that Aug. 21 night 62 years ago that her father reportedly spied little green men in the woods behind their house. Teichner also interviewed Arlon "Casey" Jones, whose grandfather, the original Casey Jones, produced some of the best moonshine around during Prohibition.
As a salute to both that time and capitalism, Hoptown's Casey Jones Distillery is marketing Total Eclipse Moonshine for $40 a bottle. Said Jones as he handled Teichner a sample: "Lights out."
But that's just the beginning. A plane full of NASA scientists was expected to arrive by this morning to witness the total eclipse, which is supposed to last 2 minutes and 40 seconds. The Vatican's lead scientist, Brother Guy Consolmagno, also was planning to drop by, addressing Hoptown's St. Peter and Paul Church on Sunday night.
"We became aware of the total solar eclipse about 10 years ago as a scientist called to inquire about hotel accommodations," Hendricks said. "Planning in earnest began approximately two years ago as we hired an eclipse coordinator."
Not that everyone apparently sees the need to visit Eclipseville in order to witness the point of greatest eclipse.
Wynn Radford, who has spent most of his 64 years on earth as a Hopkinsville resident and whose son, Wynn IV, boarded at Baylor School, recently called a friend in Paducah, Ky., 75 miles slightly northwest of Eclipseville, to see if he was coming to town for the big event.
"My friend was like, 'Yeah, like I'm going to leave my house to drive for more than an hour, then fight 100,000 people to see an eclipse that's going to last one second longer in your town than it does in mine,'" Radford said with a laugh. "It's hard to argue with that."
And all those Tennessee towns from Clarksville to Nashville to Spring City to Sweetwater can appreciate that argument.
Yet as suffocating humidity turned Eclipseville into Meltsville late Saturday morning, Roger Feightner of Evansville, Ind., was having no regrets as he took his dog for a stroll at the Trail of Tears RV Park on the edge of Hoptown.
"I'm 65," he said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for my wife [Juanita] and me. This is a total eclipse. It's completely different than a partial. There's no comparison. And this is supposed to be the ultimate place to watch it. All I ask for now is a clear day."
From McMinnville, Ore., to McClellanville, S.C., and all eclipse points in between, he surely is not alone.
Contact Mark Wiedmer, who spent much of his childhood in Hopkinsville, at firstname.lastname@example.org.