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Community Engagement Tips for your Eclipse Event from Sweetwater Tennessee!

A description of how the City of Sweetwater Tennesse celebrated the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse.

Published onMar 07, 2024
Community Engagement Tips for your Eclipse Event from Sweetwater Tennessee!


The City of Sweetwater Tennessee was the “Sweetest Place” to watch the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse.  This small rural community hosted over 25,000 visitors from all 50 states and 39 countries over the weekend leading up to the Eclipse.  Community leader Jessica Morgan shares best practices regarding community engagement for your 2024 event, with a focus on engaging the youth in your community.

1. Introduction

How exciting it is that April 2024 will bring another total solar eclipse across America! For me, this evokes many great memories, relationships, and a lasting impact on my small community of Sweetwater, TN. On August 21, 2017, our small community of 6,000 people came together and witnessed this amazing phenomenon, an experience people still talk about to this day.

I’ve had the privilege of traveling with my colleague, Sweetwater Tourism Director Hayley Isbill, across the United States this year, sharing insights on how communities can prepare for an eclipse. One of the most enjoyable aspects of our community planning efforts was engaging with children and children know how to pull their family in to experiences better than anyone. I hope to share a few tips with other community planners on engaging children of all ages within their communities.

People looking up during eclipse with glasses on.
Figure 1

Totality in the Valley. Photo by Tony Cox.

2. Partnerships

Public libraries, schools including colleges and universities, and arts organizations make awesome partners! We asked the children in our community how they would like to celebrate this once-in-a-lifetime event for our area. Many of our ideas came straight from these students and teachers.

We have an awesome public library. They set up displays for the community about the upcoming eclipse, featuring themed space books and DVDs. In their Maker Space, they creatively crafted pinhole viewers out of recycled paper towel tubes and paper plates, as well as made projectors from cardboard and cereal boxes (Figure 2).

Projected pinhole images of the Sun during partial eclipse.
Figure 2

A DIY pinhole projector. Photo by Sweetwater Public Library.

A local college partnered with us to help clean up our parks and downtown area prior to the eclipse-related events. The students earned community service hours and several returned to view the eclipse in Sweetwater.

We partnered with our school system’s art classes, providing river rocks and paint for the students to paint hundreds of “Moon Rocks” to hide all around town (Figure 3). Each rock had our hashtag on one side and the students’ creative designs on the other, adding an element of fun for our visitors who enjoyed searching for them while they waited for totality.

Figure 3

Sweetwater Moon Rocks. Photo by City of Sweetwater.

Our parks department partnered with a local dentist to sponsor a movie night in the park on the eve of the eclipse, featuring “Men in Black”, free to everyone in the community.

We partnered with local businesses to sponsor a kid’s zone, complete with inflatables, a trackless train, face painting, hula hoops, and plenty of outdoor children’s activities. Even those children still in the womb found ways to celebrate!

Figure 4

Maybe the next eclipse will be seen outside the womb! Photo by A. Katz

We also partnered with one of our local art teachers who hosts an art camp each summer. In the basement of city hall, using four pieces of plywood and paint donated by our local building supply store, dozens of children ages 5-15 painted a “Starry Night” themed Sweetwater eclipse mural (Figure 5). During our eclipse festival, waited in line for hours to capture memorable photos in front of it (Figure 6).

Students pose in front of space mural
Figure 5

Julie Whited and her 2017 Art Camp students. Photo by City of Sweetwater

Staff in front of space mural
Figure 6

City Hall staff with the “Starry Night” themed Sweetwater eclipse mural. Photo by City of Sweetwater

We created a special Sweetwater Eclipse postcard to sell for $2 (including postage). The USPS had issued a thermally activated eclipse stamp, which turned from a dark to a lit Moon when touched, so we bought hundreds of these fitting stamps. We partnered with our local Postmaster who acquired a special Sweetwater, TN cancellation stamp with a date of the eclipse on August 21, 2027 (Figure 7). She set up a booth outside the post office downtown and stamped any piece of mail people brought to her. Many teachers purchased postcards for their students and mailed them as great keepsakes.

eclipse postcard front and back
Figure 7

Sweetwater’s postcard. Photo by City of Sweetwater

We placed one of these postcards with the cancellation stamp and USPS thermal stamp in our time capsule, which we dedicated and buried at our “Reclipse” on August 21, 2018.

Figure 8

Our Reclipse logo

Our favorite part of the reclipse day was asking those who attended to wear their eclipse t-shirts wherever they were in the world and post a photo to our Facebook page. This photo was taken at the coliseum in Rome by a sweet couple who spent August 17, 2017 during the eclipse in Sweetwater with us! (Figure 9)

Couple in front of colosseum in Rome
Figure 9

When in Rome, wear your Sweetwater Eclipse shirts! Photo submitted to City of Sweetwater.

3. Safety

With so many visitors attending the eclipse-related events, especially families with children and those form other countries, we tried to communicate clearly and often about safety measures we were taking, particularly regarding children. Recognizing the diverse backgrounds, abilities, and ages of the children present, we prioritized the establishment of a highly visible “Lost Child Station.”

Our amazing summer art campers also created a large paper mache space shuttle, adorned with photos of each campers’ dressed as an astronaut. The shuttle was then mounted to the top of the gazebo located in the center of downtown. We proactively promoted the shuttle in advance through press releases, website posts, and on-site instructions at the kid’s zone, notifying parents to have their children look for the space shuttle. This allowed non-verbal children as well as children of all ages and backgrounds to find help if they needed it. We also stationed a volunteer at the Gazebo throughout the event to aid any children in need. As children entered the kids’ zone, we wrote their guardian’s phone number on each child’s paper bracelet so that if any child was separated from their parent, we had a way to contact them.

Figure 10

Art camp students with the safety space shuttle. Photo by City of Sweetwater.

4. Other Ideas for Engaging the Community at Large

Business Window Contest

Our Main Street district organized a window contest for downtown business owners to decorate their windows with an eclipse theme. We awarded cash prizes, sponsored by our merchant’s association, to the top three windows.

Where are you from map

We printed a large map and provided push pins (see Figure 11). This map, along with a sign-in sheet from one of our downtown antique shops, revealed we had at least 25,000 people attend downtown from all 50 states and 36 countries!

map with pins in it
Figure 11

Map of Visitors. Photo by Sterne Slaven

Downtown Decorations

Our Main Street Design committee repurposed our fall scarecrow decorations transforming them into astronauts and aliens to decorate downtown. Everyone loved posing for photos with the characters in the weeks leading up to the eclipse and during the event (Figure 12). Our high school cheerleaders conducted a photo shoot downtown to help promote the event (Figure 13).

little girl smiling at an astronaut suit
Figure 12

Little ones loved the astronauts throughout town! Photo by Jessica Morgan.

cheerleaders posing with an astronaut suit
Figure 13

SHS cheerleaders rallying the community! Photo by Jesica Morgan.

5. Reclipse

We had a great time during the eclipse. It was a beautiful moment of unity for our town, one that continued to resonate long after 2017, often through active engagement on our eclipse Facebook page. Remarkable, we have even had people move to our community after visiting Sweetwater for the eclipse. We commemorated this event one year later with a Reclipse!

Moreover, the eclipse served as a catalyst for growth within our city. New businesses emerged from the vendors who participated in the eclipse. We fostered and grew valuable relationships within the business community and with our media partners. The highlight of our post-eclipse journey came when we were featured on the front page of USA Today for a POSTIVE story!

To commemorate the eclipse, we held a "Reclipse" celebration one year later. Our city leaders, media partners, and sponsors gathered again to reflect on the experience. During the event, we buried a time capsule filled with memorabilia, to be opened in 2067, in the hopes that those who were children in 2017 will enjoy its contents when it is opened.

6. Tips from Sweetwater for Eclipse 2024

Invite the Professional Astral Photographers to your site!

Cater to them. -Give them a space away from the crowd, away from overhead buildings or trees, and fenced or protected from crowds bumping into their equipment. As a condition, require they give you rights to use their photos! This provided us with amazing photos!

Be present in the moment!

Do not try to capture the eclipse with your cell phone. Be intentional about being in the moment. There will be plenty of professional photographers equipped with professional lenses, filters, and equipment capturing awesome shots. Just enjoy the experience!

Eliminate as much noise and light pollution as possible!

We deactivated the photo cells on the surrounding street lights so that they would not come on during totality. Additionally, we asked all vendors and businesses to not operate during totality and turn off all lighting. These steps helped everyone focus on this natural phenomenon without distraction.

Have a countdown clock!

We employed digital countdowns on websites and social media to inspire excitement leading up to the eclipse.

Futhermore, we used an actual physical countdown clock, specially a 5k race clock set to the start of totality that then tracked the time of totality. To further engage attended, we had someone verbally counting down every 30 seconds, eliminating the need for people to check their phones for the time. This approach allowed everyone to fully immerse themselves in the experience without distraction.

Communicate often and well!

We used a calling system to alert our citizens to potential issues and mailed letters to our business owners and factories. In addition to monthly spots on our local news stations, community meetings, and flyers, we bought yard signs, banners, and radio spots to keep citizens well informed. Eclipse traffic can affect people’s commute to work, the hospital, or to get medications. Encourage them to go before eclipse day. Communication backup plans like cell phone booster devices and radios are especially important in rural areas that are not used to needing such capacity or bandwidth. Our emergency services personnel set up a separate communications center outside the festival area to ensure communications could go uninterrupted.

Let your non-profits and business owners take advantage of the crowd!

This is a great opportunity for local businesses to make customized apparel and memorabilia, attract new visitors into local restaurants, and raise funds for non-profits. Our city raised over $90,000 during the eclipse from selling t-shirts and parking spaces alone, and they continued selling t-shirts for months afterward. There is lot of opportunity for raising funds and benefitting local businesses and communities through eclipse events.

Focus on the Joy!

An eclipse can be an emotional experience! We found that the beauty and unity we felt during totality was overwhelming. For those involved in planning an eclipse event, witnessing everything come together is incredibly rewarding. Remember, whether the experience is good or bad, it is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Embrace the job that this event can bring!


Our still active Facebook page with videos and photos:

Time lapse video of eclipse in downtown Sweetwater:

Totality in downtown Sweetwater:


Jessica Morgan

City of Sweetwater Tennessee

[email protected]

423-337-6979 ext 400

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