In a lot of sparsely populated counties, the upcoming wave of eclipse tourism is unimaginable. But Grant County has had to accommodate a huge influx of people before.
Julie Carr owns the only gas pump in the tiny Grant County community of Dayville; if you’re heading west, her station is the last place to get gas for 85 miles. She remembers August 2015, when massive fires were burning just a mile south of John Day. Hundreds of firefighters set up camp to contain the blaze, and basic supplies ran low.
“Clear up to Yakima there was no ice,” Carr said. “So we took our ice machine, put it in the back of a Dually Pickup, hooked it to a generator and drove it to Idaho to a Cash&Carry and got ice. And that’s how we provided ice to the fire camp that was here of 1,800 people.”
This month’s eclipse will bring exponentially bigger crowds. Grant County’s Chamber of Commerce estimates that between 10,000 and 50,000 tourists will travel in or through the county on eclipse weekend. But Carr is feeling confident. She’s got her own ice machine, and she’s stocking up on essentials.
“Oh no, I’m not gonna let things sell out,” she said. “My goodness, if I ran out of chew and cigarettes … which happened two weeks ago, when I ran out of Copenhagen, three people came to know Jesus because we didn’t have any! So, no, I’m not going to let anything run out.”
At some local cultural centers in Grant County, it’s a different story. Just because they’ve seen an influx of people before doesn’t mean they feel prepared for the tourists—or comfortable with having extra patrons. The Grant County Museum, for example, is closing its doors for a whole week around the eclipse.
Jayne Primrose runs the museum, and she says she’s nervous about keeping her collection safe with a small, mostly-volunteer staff. That’s partly because many items in the museum’s collection of old pioneer clothes and gold mining tools are displayed on shelves, unprotected.
“A lot of our items aren’t in cases,” Primrose said, “because we don’t have the money to buy cases. We also pride ourselves on the fact that you can actually pick up an old whatever and look at it. Touch has something to do with the learning process.”
They’re worried about visitors who might try to steal things or even just damage them.
Primrose had similar concerns during another dry run for the eclipse: In early July, Grant County was the site of the Rainbow Gathering, an annual festival that brings free spirits together to build and live in a weeklong peace camp. Twelve thousand people camped out in the Malheur National Forest, and the main road to camp went straight through John Day and Canyon City.
Primrose closed the museum all week.
“You know, I’m sure we lost money that week that week that we closed,” Primrose said. “But that money, or any amount of money that would come in when we have hordes of people from the eclipse, will not replace items that get stolen or damaged.”
The Grant County Museum isn’t the only one in the area shutting its doors during the eclipse. In John Day, the Ranch and Rodeo Museum is also closing. Two other museums — the Kam Wah Chung & Co Museum and Prairie City’s Dewitt Museum — are staying open.
Tammy Bremner manages Grant County’s Chamber of Commerce, and she says that for organizations like the Grant County Museum, the question of whether to stay open for crowds is a tricky one.
“I think it’s really hard for the museums because they want to be open but at the same time it’s like, ‘Can I be here for 24 hours a day, five days in a row? Am I going to have enough staff to do this?’” Bremner said.
The Grant County Sheriff’s department did not release information to OPB about local crime statistics from July. So based on the Rainbow Gathering experience, it’s hard to know how much grounding exists for fears about vandalism and shoplifting later this month.
But on the business side of things, Grant County shopkeepers are putting any nerves aside and, for the most part, preparing to staying open.
“I think that people understand that this could be very beneficial and a big shot in the arm for the businesses. You don’t want to miss out,” Bremner said.
Even if that means doing some extra work to get ready. Bremner said that some restaurants are planning to stay open 24 hours a day when the tourists are in town, while others are stockpiling nonperishables or planning to serve more limited menus than normal.
And for those who might be disappointed that they won’t get a chance to visit all of Grant County’s local museums, Bremner points out that there will be many other options for eclipse tourist entertainment: a local outdoor concert, bikeable smoothie trucks, petting zoos, yard sales, bazaars and more. And maybe that will be enough to bring tourists back at a time when every museum in town has the bandwidth to stay open.
“We’re trying to roll out the red carpet and also say, ‘Come back!’” Bremner said. “Come back at a time when things aren’t so crazy.”