BY HOLLY KEE
There are no super highways or billboards to mar the natural beauty of the hills surrounding Makanda.
From the south, a winding, two-lane highway with steep hills and blind curves levels out at a railroad crossing next to the post office and a park.
From the north, alongside Giant City State Park, the trees part around the railroad tracks, opening to a view of the boardwalk with shops that look like the stage of an 1800s-era Hollywood western.
Makanda has seen its share of changes in 172 years, but it remains stubbornly lost in time, for generations remaining one of southern Illinois’ best-kept secrets.
The secret is about to be out. On Monday, thousands of umbraphiles — eclipse chasers — are expected to arrive for the greatest show on Earth, a total solar eclipse.
What’s more, the international eclipse spotlight will shine brightest on Makanda, where totality will last 2 minutes and 40 seconds, longer than anywhere else in the United States.
To Makanda and its 450 residents, nestled in the foothills of the Illinois Ozarks about 10 miles south of Carbondale, it will look like an invasion.
“Ever since NASA announced that Makanda is the place to be, we’ve seen an increase in visitors,” said Jeremy Schumacher, an employee for Makanda Eclipse, headquartered in the Eclipse Café. “We’ve had people from all over the U.S. show up just to see the little town.” One carful of people from Colorado drove in, stayed a few hours and headed back west, he said.
Mayor Tina Shingleton is not sure what to expect.
“We don’t want to deter anyone from coming to Makanda, but people need to realize that we’re small,” she said. “We just don’t know where we’re going to put everyone.”
Known primarily as the hometown of the late U.S. senator Paul Simon — the water tower boasts a bow tie — Makanda was once a thriving community built up around the Illinois Central Railroad that carried fresh fruit and vegetables from southern Illinois to Chicago on a daily basis. With the onset of commercial refrigeration, the town became a virtual ghost town.
It was rediscovered in the 1960s when it became a mecca for artisans and hippies. Dave Dardis is one of those who found a home here.
“Me and a couple of buddies were going to SIU and we came here to rent because we could get a big space cheap,” he said. Dardis later found a home and has owned The Rainmaker Art Studio, on the south end of Makanda’s boardwalk, for 45 years.
It’s hard to miss his studio, what with the big orange line going through its middle.
Xavier Jubier, the French scientist and author, and inventor of solar and lunar eclipse Google maps and Google Earth files, came through Makanda. Someone showed Dardis the Google map Jubier produced of Monday’s eclipse path from Oregon through South Carolina.
The line “comes right through the shop,” Dardis said. “So of course, we had to paint it.”
Dardis, who says his shop “is always open, we’re even open during the floods and it always floods here,” said traffic for his eclipse pendants and wall art has increased since Makanda was identified as a prime eclipse location.
The 20-seat Eclipse Cafe will celebrate its year anniversary on Monday (“That was planned,” says Schumacher) and owners Bob and Jackie Baker are going with the flow. All their business will be “out of the door,” according to Schumacher. “There will be a sack lunch available and a taco dish served out the door,” he said.
The Makanda Post Office will set up a station in front of the small brick building on Monday, where they will have stacks of postcards ready to sell. The postcards will carry a special cancellation rubber stamp, designed by the Makanda Eclipse Committee and featuring an image of an eclipse with the inscription, “Totality for all, peak eclipse duration” with the Aug. 21 date and “Makanda, IL 62958.”
Postal clerk, Mariann Roedl said they don’t know how many people will take advantage of the stamp, but they are prepared.
Many Makanda locals will view the eclipse from home, including former Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, Paul Simon’s daughter. Simon said she and her family are hosting “who knows how many close friends and relatives from far away” at her parents’ old house.
“We’re out of bedrooms and floor space, but I think there’s still room for some tents,” she joked.
“Makanda is a one-of-a-kind place in the state of Illinois,” said Simon. “It’s very appropriate to have a one-of-a-kind celestial event centered in Makanda.”
For those without a local connection, parking will be at a premium. There will be 300 spaces available at $20 each. No overnight parking or camping is available and alcohol is prohibited.
For anyone who misses out on the 2017 Makanda Eclipse experience, another chance will come around on April 8, 2024, when Makanda will again be at the peak of totality, this time for more than four minutes.
Shingleton expects Monday “to just really be crazy,” and wants visitors to just relax and enjoy the moment.
“I can say,” she added, “that you’re going to enjoy Makanda more when it’s not an eclipse.”