If you want to know what’s happening in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, head to Ferrell’s. The diner is two-tenths of a mile from the courthouse, 175 yards from the closest church, and 500 feet from the library. When you get there, Christian County Judge-Executive Steve Tribble recommends two double cheeseburgers with pickle and onion, a large chili, and a large milk. But, as Steve will warn you, you better expect a crowd. And that’s before 100,000 extra people get to town.
You see, August 21, 2017, the first total solar eclipse fully contained in the United States since 1776 will find its point of greatest eclipse in Hopkinsville. What that means is that the moon will pass between the earth and the sun, leaving parts of the earth in the moon’s shadow. Where that darkness will last the longest is Hopkinsville. The city of 33,203 is the county seat of Christian County.
Believe the gossip at Ferrell’s, and 100,000 is a low number. As the women who work there pound patties on the grill, the rumors stick to you more strongly than the smell, which Steve admits’ll stay on your clothes all day. Hopkinsville could see anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 people because, according to Steve, “the last [total solar eclipse] was on an island and there were 30,000 or 40,000 people who actually made it to the island… Here we are in the continental United States with easy access if somebody wanted to fly into Nashville or even fly into our little local airport or certainly drive here.”
Which begs the question: How does a small city stay a small when its population quadruples overnight? All these people will come to Hopkinsville, interact with others, form an impression, and leave. But with that many in town, will visitors be able to tell what’s Hopkinsville and what’s Hopkinsville-Meets-Eclipse?
I grew up outside Hopkinsville, then went to Centre College, a liberal arts school 192 miles away. In 1995–my freshman year–there were 1,003 students. October 5, 2000, though, Centre saw its own population explosion when it hosted the Cheney-Lieberman vice-presidential debate. Up to 13,000 outsiders flooded that campus, from debate-goers to law enforcement to media like me. And while the Commission on Presidential Debates told Centre this was one the best hosted debates they’d seen, as an alumna, I barely recognized the place. The gym had become a media hall; the soccer field was covered with satellite trucks; and so many barricades blocked my favorite shortcuts that my cameraman–who’d never been there before–mouthed off the whole weekend that he could get around campus better than I did. Debate-Site-Centre and the Centre College where I went were not the same place.
I’ve seen an event overwhelm my home before; I see what Hopkinsville has coming.
But the judge-exec, the women behind the counter, and everyone else coming in and out of Ferrell’s are ready. Even if the city only gets 25,000–the more conservative figure that the convention and visitors bureau is forecasting–the town’s size would still essentially double overnight. “Think how crowded it is in there even with just the local people,” said Steve, “Anybody tries to go to Ferrell’s, how they gonna get in?”
The answer is preparation. Whether it’s Ferrell’s, another restaurant, or the roads that come into Hopkinsville themselves, “what we don’t want to do,” Steve says, “is have 100,000 people come in here and they can’t move and they can’t get anywhere and they leave and they say that was the worst experience of my life coming there,” which is why the city and the county have been planning how best to greet you for two years. “We want them to say, ‘Man, that was cool, we enjoyed coming there, and we’d like to come back.’”
Terena Bell is a television journalist who grew up in Sinking Fork, Kentucky, near Hopkinsville.