Before April 2016, few people in Sweetwater, if any, knew that the town was in the 70-mile wide path of the total solar eclipse that will occur from about 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday (Aug. 21).
Fast forward to August 2017 and Sweetwater, along with the rest of Monroe County, seems to be the center of the universe the last few weeks.
Because astronomy enthusiasts knew of the eclipse, it was likely many people would have found their way to the area this coming Monday for what will be a once-in-a-lifetime view of an incredible wonder in the sky. However, if you want to give credit, or blame, to the first few people who really spread knowledge of the event locally, The Advocate & Democrat appears to have found the main culprits or more accurately, they turned themselves in.
On the Wednesday before the eclipse, suspects Karen Gruver, her son Chip, Sweetwater City Recorder Jessica Morgan and Dr. Hugh McCampbell were questioned by The Advocate & Democrat.
Their testimony gave the following revelations.
The Gruver family has for years had an interest in astronomy. Father Chuck Gruver years ago told his wife and children that a total solar eclipse would be visible in the area.
Chip currently lives in Minnesota but was in town for the eclipse and consented to an interview and picked up the story from there.
“I said, ‘Oh my goodness, that goes right through Sweetwater!’”
As far back as 2010, Chip asked his boss if he could be off on Aug. 21, 2017!
In April of 2016, he reminded his mother about the coming eclipse. Karen asked fellow church member Dr. Hugh McCampbell if he knew anyone at City Hall to inform about the eclipse less than 18 months away. Karen knew the town had an unbelievable opportunity to gain attention and see a major economic boost.
McCampbell contacted City Recorder Jessica Morgan, who is never shy about promoting Sweetwater. She could hardly contain her excitement.
“I love it! I love it! I love it!” Morgan exclaimed, when McCampbell told her the news.
Morgan had too immediately recognized the solar eclipse was a unique opportunity Sweetwater had to put itself on the map. Morgan led the city’s charge to take the ball and run with it.
She started contacting people by email about the eclipse and immediately heard back from Knoxville television news producers.
With around 2 minutes and 37 seconds of a total eclipse, Sweetwater and all Monroe County have some of the longest totality times in the nation that day. Knoxville media seized upon Sweetwater and Monroe County as the place to be to see the eclipse that day almost to the total exclusion of other nearby places at times, which themselves have long totality times.
The rest is history.
With a relatively favorable weather forecast for sky viewing on Monday, Sweetwater, a town of 6,500, may see its population swell by 10 times that day. A big festival is planned downtown with 80 vendors from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and it appears thousands more will view the eclipse from numerous parking lots and fields even away from town, along with many more people who are staying with relatives.
The attendance estimates are not without evidence behind them. Thousands of parking places have been sold in Sweetwater and Morgan said at least $44,000 in parking places and eclipse items, such as T-shirts.
“I think Interstate 75 is the biggest thing,” Morgan said of Sweetwater’s ability to eclipse, if you will, the attention nearby towns are getting due to the solar eclipse on Monday.
Morgan and the City Hall staff have spent countless hours preparing for the eclipse along with a large number of volunteers.
“It has been time-consuming,” she admits.
But the city’s other business must still be handled, so long nights at City Hall have been common the last few weeks. Morgan feels all the hoopla surrounding the eclipse has been worth it.
“A lot of people have now heard of Sweetwater, Tennessee so that is a plus,” she said.
The stories of what is happening in Sweetwater this weekend are almost too many to be told.
About two dozen hard-core eclipse photographers will set up at the city’s hill-top swimming pool. Drones will be taking pictures from above.
During the partial phase of the eclipse, special solar glasses must be worn. However, a little past 2:30 p.m. (Eastern Time), the glasses can come off for that 2 minutes and 37 seconds of totality. There will be a countdown downtown for the totality start.
Lights will be turned off downtown at that time but streetlights in other parts of the city will still be on. Astronomers say during totality, it will appear as if it is nighttime outside, especially if there are a few clouds around. Weather officials say a temperature drop will occur as well.
“I can’t believe I grew up in this little town and get to come back here for this,” Chip said.