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Ohio small towns shine amid shadow of the total eclipse

A ring of light surrounds the moon in a photo of a solar eclipse.
Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to visit Ohio for the total solar eclipse on April 8. Small towns across the state are ready to host.

When Jennifer Harris found out she could get married during the eclipse, she knew that’s where she’d be saying ‘I do.’

“We were trying to find something more unique,” she said. “And when this came up, we just immediately were excited about it.”

Harris and her partner are one of 150 couples exchanging vows during the total eclipse in Tiffin, a community about 50 miles southeast of Toledo.

Like many small towns across the state, it’s embracing the celestial event, hosting out-of-this-world festivities in hopes of attracting eclipse-chasing visitors.

“Our mentality is, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to not only have this experience, but also the economic impact that it can bring to our community,” said Bryce Riggs, the executive director of Destination Seneca County and the Seneca Regional Chamber of Commerce.

A musician plays the guitar in a covered amphitheater while a crowd of people watches from lawn chairs.
Seneca Regional Chamber of Commerce / Destination Seneca County
The venue where 150 couples will exchange vows in Seneca County during the total solar eclipse

When the chamber proposed Elope at the Eclipse, a mass wedding ceremony, local businesses were quick to say yes.

Two bakeries have prepared 150 wedding cakes for the celebration and local photographers are ready to capture the moment.

“Our small businesses have done discounts,” Riggs said. “Basically, 'Get your bouquet here, it's a discount. Get your wedding band here. It's 25% off.’”

It’s taken months and months of planning, but he believes commemorating the not-even four-minute celestial event is worth it.

“For us, [the eclipse] is an opportunity to bring a different audience into our community that has maybe never heard of Tiffin or Seneca County,” he said “We’re trying to open up our community with welcoming arms.”

Wapakoneta’s lunar claim to fame

Small towns across the state are taking a similar approach. Many have set themselves up as solar eclipse destinations, taking significant measures to accommodate crowds.

On the west side of the state, Wapakoneta just wrapped up a full weekend of eclipse-inspired festivities.

The birthplace of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, hosted a triple feature film festival, live music, a pickleball tournament and a psychic fest.

“Being a small town, we're known for our hospitality and our welcoming nature. It's like a unique slice of Americana still happening right here.”
Jackie Martell, Wapakoneta Chamber of Commerce executive director

“Bingo in small towns is still a very big deal,” said Wapakoneta Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jackie Martell. “And you bet that they're going to have an eclipse themed bingo at the American Legion.”

And the list goes on.

The Ohio Emergency Management Agency expects the normally 10,000-person town to swell to a population of 75,000, Martell said. Hotels were booked a year in advance, and the community has opened its county fairgrounds to accommodate additional campers.

“Because of who we are,” Martell said, “we've been on a lot of people's radar for a long time.”

Leaning in to small town character

While other Ohio towns may not have Wapakoneta’s lunar claim to fame, they’re getting in on the action too.

In rural Crawford County, local farmers like Scott McKnight joined forces to put on a farm hop, so visitors could get a taste of Ohio agriculture. Literally.

They'll offer homemade jams and freshly grown vegetables.

“They're going to be grilling hot dogs and bratwurst from the Bratwurst Capital of the World, which is right here in Bucyrus, Ohio,” McKnight said.

“We thought it'd be really cool if we could showcase some of our properties in our own backyard and just let people know that this is truly the land of milk and honey.”

Some of these same farms will open their properties to eclipse viewing on Monday.

Three men in eclipse glasses pose for a photo.
Wapakoneta Area Chamber of Commerce Facebook
Wapakoneta, birthplace of the first man on the moon, expects tens of thousands of visitors for the solar eclipse. It put on a weekend full of eclipse-themed festivities.

Grand Rapids, near Bowling Green, is hosting Solar Express, a music and arts festival.

Mansfield has an eclipse viewing in the prison yard of the Historic Ohio State Reformatory, with a tour of the prison included.

A retreat near Serpent Mound is putting on a solar eclipse peace summit, complete with drum circles, dancers and storytelling.

All of these places are leaning into their unique identities, and they stand to benefit tremendously by doing so. The organization, Great American Eclipse, estimates 139,000 to 556,000 visitors will stop in Ohio to see the eclipse, and they’ll bring their pocketbooks with them.

But it’s not just about the money, said Wapakoneta’s Jackie Martell. This is a chance to experience small town life.

“We're known for our hospitality and our welcoming nature,” she said. “It's like a unique slice of Americana still happening right here.”

So, the eclipse may cast a shadow over Ohio, but for the state’s small towns, this is the time to shine.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.
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