In the town of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, everyone’s got their head in the clouds, and for good reason.

“There has been quite a buzz going on," says Mark Breen, senior meteorologist and planetarium director at the Fairbanks Museum, Vermont's only public planetarium. "And we're probably part of the reason because we started talking about it.”

The “it” he refers to is — of course — the 2024 total solar eclipse.

“As it turns out, this is the only planetarium in all of New England that's in the path of the eclipse," said Breen. "I'm bubbling ... I've been here for 40 years, and this is going to be an absolutely unique marker in my time here.”

This quaint town on the edge of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom has been making more than its share of headlines recently, since it falls in the path of totality — a cosmic coincidence that is expected to draw an estimated 200,000 visitors to the state.

Admittedly, that makes some of the locals a little nervous.

“I think people are super duper excited, but there's also a lot of stuff about like, 'where am I going to get eclipse glasses? I heard a lot of people are going to come. Do we know exactly how many?' And the answer for us is always we have no idea,” said Ama Jones, one of the planetarium's resident AmeriCorps educators. She's approaching the big day with optimism — and caution.

“We're closing off roads and stuff, so there's a lot of preplanning to go into this,” said Jones.

A three-hour drive from both Boston and Montreal, located just off three interstate highways, and home to the only planetarium in New England on the path of totality, St. Johnsbury seems perfectly positioned to be one of the top destinations to experience the celestial phenomenon in all of New England.

Downtown St. Johnsbury
Main Street in Downtown St. Johnsbury will be closed on Monday for the town's eclipse programming.
Kate Dellis GBH News

“My boss told me to plan for the eclipse like it's a natural disaster. So just, like, put gas in your car, because there will be people who show up and all the gas will be missing. Get cash from the ATM because people will get here and realize they didn't have cash," Jones said. "And I'm not going anywhere. Whatever I needed to do the day or weekend of the eclipse, I don't anymore.”

For a small, rural town, St. Johnsbury punches well above its weight in the cultural sphere. Complete with a gilded Athenaeum and first-class preparatory school, much of St. Johnsbury’s infrastructure can be traced back to the Fairbanks family, after which the planetarium was named.

“They invented the platform scale. It was this amazing invention. It became a worldwide product. There's still Fairbanks scales today," said Breen. "It became a very prosperous town starting, say, around the time of the Civil War, a little bit before that. But because you had these industrial philanthropists, you ended up with some pretty amazing buildings, facilities in a really small community. “

Still, there was a time not so long ago when St. Johnsbury had more vacant storefronts than filled. Gillian Sewake, director of the designated downtown organization called Discover St.Johnsbury, remembers a time when degraded and dilapidated structures peppered the heart of the town.

“So St. Johnsbury, like a lot of other rural towns ... has had challenges with outmigration, with blight, with drugs, with crime. This has happened everywhere, with just the change of the manufacturing base in a lot of our communities," Sewake said. "And so St. Johnsbury had quite a lot of large employers closing in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s.”

But to be clear, a megawatt solar eclipse event isn’t something that is happening to the town. This is a party they are actively throwing, and not just because there’s a science museum here. Organizations have been working for decades to reimagine St. Johnsbury as a small town where big things can happen.

“We're building up our infrastructure here. We're building up our ability to accept this kind of activity into the community. We want to be at a place where our events in this small little town attract 5,000 to 10,000 people routinely," said Gillian. In planning for the solar eclipse festivities, the town has laid the groundwork for logistics like parking and shuttles for future town events. "We have the relationships built up with the town so that the permitting process is smoother next time around.”

This sort of cross-organizational cooperation is a hallmark of St. Johnsbury today. When Breen at the planetarium needed a stage to host his live eclipse broadcast, Jody Fried executive director of local arts organization Catamount Arts, came to the rescue with a free portable stage.

Vendors all over downtown St. Johnsbury are getting ready for a massive influx of eclipse-seeking tourists.
Kate Dellis GBH News

“The positive benefits often come in the six months to a year that follows,” Fried says, “but what happens is people come to a place for the first time, and if they feel welcomed, if they have a positive experience, it spurs their curiosity. And it might be two or three-day trips, it might be one amazing event, but what you hope is that for a percentage of those folks, this becomes one of their places.”

Bob Joly, director of the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, has observed the slow and steady progress his community has made transforming itself into a vital cultural hub in Vermont's Green Mountains.

“I think there's a great vibe here ... And while this was in some ways a typical 19th-century-that-had-its-heyday-all-long-gone town, it is a very cool place with some neat things, and people are finally discovering it.”

For Breen at the planetarium, he says an event like this and coordination with a variety of community groups will leave a lasting impact on the town.

“I think people are going to be talking about this for years and years and years, especially if it is clear out. This is going to be this wonderful town memory."

Experts say there is a 70% chance of rain or clouds in this part of the country on any given April 8 — not ideal for a once in a lifetime event in the skies. Still, that hasn’t deterred these Vermonters. Beating the odds is something they’ve gotten pretty good at in St. Johnsbury.