Nebraska small towns get creative to attract eclipse viewers who want to avoid a crowd

Many small towns across Nebraska are doing what they do best to step out of the shadow of their bigger neighbors during the total solar eclipse next month.

Although places like Alliance, Gering and Scottsbluff, North Platte, Kearney, Grand Island, Hastings, Lincoln and Beatrice have cornered the buzz — and, likely, the bigger crowds — with visiting astronauts, astronomers and attractions, there are more than 150 smaller communities where it will be just as dark for just as long when the moon makes a midday pass in front of the sun Aug. 21.

Big Red welcome carpets are rolling out from Auburn and Falls City in the southeast to Broken Bow, Callaway and Ravenna in the center of the state, and Stapleton and Tryon in the Sand Hills.

Visitors are likely to go home with a few more pounds on the waistline, a lot more appreciation for life in rural America and several more friends.

To host people from around the world who are visiting to view a total solar eclipse from a village park, county fairground or cattle pasture is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, said Muriel Clark, assistant director of the North Platte/Lincoln County Visitors Bureau. She also manages the Facebook page for the Nebraska Eclipse Coalition.

“There are some major events across Nebraska expected to attract thousands of people, but there also are many little towns that won’t be wall-to-wall people — places where visitors will really enjoy the experience of the eclipse,’’ Clark said. “To be in a small-town park, probably eating ice cream with locals, will be a truly Americana experience. All these towns are getting creative in ways to welcome people.’’

Indeed, some small towns teamed up with bigger neighbors to maximize their chances of pulling in a tide of visitors. Stapleton and Tryon partnered with North Platte. Ravenna joined forces with Kearney.

Here’s what a few communities (and their approximate time in totality) plan:

Auburn (2 minutes, 8 seconds) — Merchants will offer online coupons, named Eclipse E-clips, that can be printed out for discounts and specials.

“Even if people are passing through town to a different eclipse destination, we want them to stop and see what we have to offer,” said Tonia Greiner, executive director of the Auburn Chamber of Commerce.

Nemaha County Hospital will host a lunch on its lawn during the eclipse. A limited number of sack lunches will be available for purchase.

Broken Bow (2:25) — A street dance, a cowboy poet, outdoor movies, barrel racing, bison ranch tours and free bacon-wrapped pork kabobs set the stage for watching a coop of chickens roost as the sky darkens. Broken Bow touts its nearly 150 seconds in totality — one second for each year of Nebraska statehood — in its event logo.

Callaway (2:34) — Ranch-owning brothers Bob and Perry Griffiths are hosting a free pasture music festival they’re calling Cornstock the weekend before the eclipse. Two local bands will be the headliners. Other music groups are welcome. Free camping is available.

“Monday (eclipse day) will be like a tailgate party,’’ Bob Griffiths said. “Just a neighborhood, family camping-music festival.’’

Falls City (2:37) — Two blocks of downtown will be closed eclipse day for Dine in the Dark. Restaurants will serve diners outside during the eclipse.

Ravenna (2:35) — The party begins four days before the eclipse with Cedar Hills Vineyard’s release of Dark of Day wine and ends at the town baseball fields (the local viewing site) after totality with an attempt to break the world record for the most people doing the moonwalk.

In between are star parties, a music festival and eclipse-themed parade, art shows, craft fairs and more. Astronaut Mike Fincke and his NASA engineer wife, Renita Fincke, will be in the parade. Cruise the line of totality Sunday night. A post-totality pig roast will be available till the food runs out.

Stapleton (2:33) — “Nebraska’s Biggest Little Rodeo” and the Logan County Fair set the theme for eclipse weekend in a village bracing for upward of 6,000 visitors. They’re coming from as far as Australia, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, said Gary Johnsen, a retired insurance adjuster and former high school science teacher who is the eclipse coordinator.

The ranching town’s slogan for the eclipse plays at its home-on-the-range image: “Stapleton: Where the Skies Are Not Cloudy All Day.”

Tryon (2:33) — Narrated prairie tours by horseback and wagon, a living history tepee village, demonstrations of cattle cutting by horse-and-rider and herd dogs and Coffee with a Rancher will showcase the village’s agricultural heritage before the celestial show.

Clark said Nebraska’s 468-mile-long path of totality gives visitors many options on where to view the eclipse.

“With dozens of communities along the path, there’s a perfect small-town event out there for every eclipse chaser,’’ she said.

For more information on Nebraska’s small-town happenings, visit the NEclipse2017 Facebook page.

One more thing: Local organizers advise visitors to be prepared. There may be plenty of elbow room, but pack a chair.

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