Interview: Nancy Ketch from Houlton, Maine

By Omar Vera April 05, 2024

As the last place in the United States to experience the April 8 total solar eclipse, the small rural town of Houlton, Maine, is in the (cosmic) spotlight. The community has been working to prepare its 6,000 residents for the big day, in addition to the thousands of visitors they’re expecting. Luckily for Houlton, Nancy Ketch, the town’s community development director, has been working for years to make sure they’re ready.

Through eclipse committees established right in town and information sharing with towns across the country through Main Street America, Ketch and Houlton have accounted for as many aspects of community life as possible, from hospitals to vendors at the town’s eclipse festival. Now they wait for the sun and moon to do their waltz in front of the thousands of spectators whom Houlton will welcome.

We recently spoke to Ketch about Houlton and the work she’s been doing to prepare her hometown. The transcript below has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Thanks for joining, Nancy! Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m the community development director for the town of Houlton, Maine. I’m born and raised in Houlton, and I’ve been here all my life, outside of college. My first job after school was at the chamber of commerce, where I was the marketing director for Houlton’s downtown revitalization project, and then I moved into being the chamber executive. I also spent a few years working for the state, so I’ve always had jobs where I was involved in the community.

Can you tell us what Houlton is like?

Houlton is a rural community of about 6,000 people. We are the county seat of Aroostook County, which is the largest county east of the Mississippi, bigger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, so it’s a big county. When the railroad came through at the turn of the last century, Houlton actually had the most millionaires per capita of any place in the U.S., and the architecture speaks to that. We have a beautiful downtown, and a number of the buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, so our downtown area is very important. Part of it is called Market Square, and so that’s a focal point for a lot of community events, — and has been for generations. That’s certainly going to be one of our viewing areas for the eclipse. People have a real sense of community here, so it’s a wonderful place to live.

How did you first find out about the eclipse?

It was not long after the 2017 eclipse that one of our local businesspeople contacted us and said, “Did you know an eclipse is going through here in 2024? We’re the last place in the United States.” We set up a committee called the Attraction Committee, which is a combination of a nonprofit economic development organization called the Southern Aroostook Development Corporation —which works very closely with the town — and the chamber. And that committee has become the eclipse committee.

I also did my research. I called some of the communities that were on the path of the 2017 eclipse to get information about what their experience was, and what their advice was for us. I found that people in those communities were so helpful. I reached out to someone in Perryville, Missouri, and she was amazing and gave me all kinds of information. I’ve actually been Zooming into their monthly meetings for over two years now and they have been a huge resource for us. We found out about Tyler Nordgren— the artist who did our town’s eclipse poster — there, and we got the source for our glasses through those meetings, so that’s been hugely helpful. If we’ve had a question, I’ve taken it back to that group, because they’ve been through it before.

What are Houlton’s plans for the eclipse?

We’re putting together a festival for that weekend. We’ve got a vendor fair that will go on at our recreation building. We’ve got a dueling piano group called Howl at the Moon that’s going to perform. Our local chamber does a really successful brewfest, which usually happens in May, and they have shifted to the weekend of the eclipse, so that’ll be really popular. There’s a Maine humorist, Tim Sample, who’s been around for a number of years, so he’s going to perform on Sunday. We’ve also got the BioBus coming, and we’re working with the library and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians on some activities with them. We’ll also have viewing areas that we’ve called Star Parks, and they’ll be doing programming like fireworks, a road race over the weekend and activities for the kids. We’ve also reached out to the faith community.

It’s been really cool to get all of these different groups together. It started with our eclipse committee, but we also held a public meeting recently that attracted a big crowd. We got some really good questions, and developed a group called the Gateway Ambassadors, because we have a beautiful walking bridge that’s called the Gateway Crossing, so we’re looking at using them as volunteers at different sites. People are starting to contact us as well. But it’s interesting, because some people know about the eclipse, and other people are like, “Do you really think there’s gonna be that many people who come?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I really do, because I know a lot of people are planning on coming up. Most of the lodging in town is booked. I think our location lends itself to that because of the I-95, so I think that’s gonna be a real attraction for people who are making a quick decision to go someplace. But we’ve been planning this for so long that there was a real advantage to getting an early start.

I know that Houlton also received an eclipse grant from Main Street America. What has that experience been like?

Main Street America had their national conference in Boston, and a group of us from Houlton went to the sessions about the eclipse. We made a bunch of connections there and got the chance to talk with everyone.

My philosophy is that you don’t need to re-create the wheel. There’s all kinds of ideas out there, and that’s the beauty of an organization like Main Street America — you can bring all of these ideas together. One thing I will mention is that there was a woman from Eagle Pass, Texas, which is the first place in the U.S. that’s going to experience the eclipse. I said, “We should do something since we’re the first place and last place.” I remembered a commercial I’d seen where you see David Letterman throwing the football, and then maybe the local sportscaster catches it and then he throws it to someone else. I thought, We could do something like that, but with all of the Main Street communities in the path, and really promote the Main Street connection. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.

I can’t wait to see that! I also wanted to ask: As a born and raised member of the Houlton Community, what do you think the eclipse means for Houlton?

Nothing like this has ever happened right in town. But somebody in national media may say, “We want to be in the last place in the United States[ to see the eclipse],” and you get that notoriety that you can’t pay for. And we’re already seeing that. NASA is going to broadcast from here because they’re broadcasting across the U.S. We’ve also got a documentary team that was just here and started looking into this and found out about some of our stuff because we started early. They’re doing a documentary about how a small town comes together and plans for something like this. They came recently and met people in some of the churches, and they met businesspeople and went out and saw some of the sites, and they’re so excited. To be the feature of a documentary that could be out there for years is honestly what we envisioned. This is a chance for us to really put ourselves on the map and let people know that we’re a place that you can come to. And we’re hoping some of the people who come to visit will want to come back and visit again. Maybe they’ll even want to move here.

What are you looking forward to on the big day?

My day will probably be quite busy. But on a personal level, I’m excited to experience the eclipse and experience it with people I know because of everything that I’ve heard. When I spoke to a woman in Wyoming where they had the 2017 eclipse, she said it was amazing. She said when it got dark, there was a hush that came over the crowd. And I’ve had people tell me that they saw colors they’d never seen, and that the temperature drops. To experience that sounds amazing. I’m also excited for the opportunity that this presents for our community to really showcase ourselves.

Thanks Nancy!