The 2024 Eclipse Redux: The View from Batavia

eclipse blue

Batavia New York Embraces Eclipse 2024 With Food and Folksy Funksy Fun: Plus Jello!

By David Perry
Senior Writer

Batavia Downs racetrack in NY State.
Batavia Downs racetrack in NY State.

I drove six hours across the New York hinterlands  for Eclipse 2024 and it was a ride.

There was rain, sleet, and snow — usually all at once! — so I couldn’t wait to pull into Batavia, capital of bucolic Genesee County, if only to pry my white-knuckled grip off the steering wheel.

All that, just so I could pull into the hotel parking lot and find myself in a cloudbank stretching from Canada to Louisiana. Sleep with one eye open, Mother Nature.

And I wasn’t the only one with that mindset. From what the folks at the Batavia Downs (my hotel) told me, eclipse fever had been buzzing for two years beforehand.

Midway between Buffalo and Rochester, the town heralded as the “Gateway to Western New York” would be directly in the line of totality, where the solar disk would be completely covered by the Moon.

The Old Court Building in emblematic of Batavia.David Perry photos.
The Old Court Building is emblematic of Batavia. David Perry photos.


Parties were planned, bands booked, even
commemorative lagers were brewed. Genesee even roped its bovine mascot, Genny Sees, for a children’s book that Forbes proclaimed as one of the best eclipse reads in the country. People had come from India, Mexico, and South Korea to witness the eclipse. Cloud cover? What cloud cover? There was going to be a party. PERIOD.

April 8 Clouds: Oh No!

Nerd Gone Wild kept the crowds busy before and after the eclipse.
Nerds Gone Wild kept the crowds busy before and after the eclipse.

So when we woke up on April 8 to more clouds, we cheered. When the band took to the stage, we cheered. When the darkness fell and rose so quickly we could see it happening, we cheered.

And when, for a few brief moments the Sun (and Moon) shone through the haze, we cheered loudly! It may have only been for a few seconds, but for a few seconds, we had our eclipse. 

Empire (State) of the Sun

Eclipse chasing is big business: in 2017, the Great American Eclipse swept across the country from Oregon to South Carolina, creating an economic bonanza wherever it fell.

When NASA determined that Hopskinsville, KY, would be the point of greatest eclipse, the tiny town saw 100,000 visitors come just for the show, generating a $30 million bump for local businesses.

Jello Molds: Jell-O is bound only by a chef’s imagination.
Jell-O Molds: Jell-O is bound only by a chef’s imagination.

Nebraska saw an even greater $127 million, while South Carolina raked in a whopping $269 million. For Batavia Downs, Eclipse 2024 was the third busiest day in the last 19 years. The message is clear: people go gaga for eclipses!

The love affair goes way, WAY back: thanks to a proclamation by the seer Theoclymenus that a famously absent king would finally reappear when “the Sun will be obliterated from the sky,” historians today figure that Odysseus returned to his home of Ithaca when an eclipse swept over the island in 1178 BC.

Archeologists determined that mysterious spirals on the Loughcrew Cairn in Ireland are the oldest known human record of an eclipse, dating to 3340 BC.

Exotic Locales for Eclipses

Barn Quilt: Painted in a cross-stitch style, barn quilts are all over Genesee County.
Barn Quilt: Painted in a cross-stitch style, barn quilts are all over Genesee County.

Modern eclipse-chasing can lead to some equally exotic locales; the Great American Eclipse took me to Maggie Valley, deep in the Great Smoky Mountains. My friends openly balked at such an out-of-the-way destination, especially for an event lasting no more than seven minutes. This myopic view overlooks the compensations: Maggie Valley is the capital of moonshine, after all. Likewise, Genesee County is the capital of…Jell-O?

Barbie gets everywhere
Barbie gets everywhere, even Jell-O.

Watch the Jello Wiggle

It is hard to understate just how deeply Jell-O is embedded in Americana. Food is the love language of Genesee County, and that includes dessert.

Initially a novelty sweet for the Gilded Age rich, Jell-O roared into the national psyche during the Great Depression and World War II as a cheap, flavorful dessert.

In her Biography of the English Language, scholar C.M. Millward notes that the word “jello” has not only come to reference the product Jell-O, made by Kraft Heinz, but any gelatin dessert at all, manufacturer and copyright law be damned.

As a child in the 70s, I remember that a “salad” was inevitably a jello-something. I was always partial to lime jello, tuna fish,  horseradish and don’t knock it till you try it. 

 The Jell-O Gallery pulls in the curious from all over the world.
The Jell-O Gallery pulls in the curious from all over the world.


None of which were on Pearle Wait’s radar when he came up with the recipe in 1897, or his wife, May, who named it. A carpenter by trade in the small town of LeRoy, east of Batavia, he had been experimenting with a cough remedy but accidentally created a flavored gelatin that could be molded into countless forms, including a museum!

The Jell-O Gallery, in a stately Federal Style manor tucked behind the equally stately Federal Style LeRoy House, chronicles the history of the product and all its impacts such as the Jell-O Girl, a mascot once as ubiquitous as Little Debbie and Ronald McDonald. There are Jell-O nursery rhymes, Jell-O cookbooks, even a Jell-O Barbie.

Artists Norman Rockwell and Marion Powers included the dessert in their works. Jell-O was a supporting actor in films from Some Like It Hot to Jurassic Park. This stuff got around. Did you know that in Utah, it is tradition for all wakes to include a Jell-O dish? 

There is more to maple syrup than sugar. It’s a craft.
There is more to maple syrup than sugar. It’s a craft.

The Sweet Life in Batavia

Considering a typical total eclipse lasts between five to seven minutes, additional itineraries, like taking in the local flavors, is part of the deal with eclipse chasing — and can have a few thrills of its own.

While billed as the arts and community center, GO ART! has a tavern with a Viking’s dream of meads on taps, including one infused with ghost peppers.

The pulled pork and hushpuppies at the Center Street Smokehouse were as good as any I had in Kansas or the Carolinas. Housed in an old train station, the D&R Depot sets the standard on raspberry pies (and friendly service; my waitress Aimee should give a class). But in upstate New York,  maple syrup reigns supreme, and nothing beats getting it from the source. And the science.

Go Art MonsterSure, the name sounds like something out of “My Little Pony,” but the Sweet Dream Maple Farm is all about chemistry. Like so many sugarmakers, Amy and Al Stein pay very close attention to season and hour; maple sap is optimal only in a narrow springtime window where the nights are below freezing but the days are well above, and all before buds appear.

Dozens of trees can be tapped, creating an eerie landscape of tubes running incongruously through a forest (maple forests under harvests are called “sugarbushes”).

For just one gallon of syrup, 43 gallons of sap has to be reduced. But once in final-product form, maple syrup is wildly versatile, becoming only only a pancake’s best friend, but also hard candies, spreads, even coffees.

Look Again to Genesee County

At the Center Street Smokehouse, the servings are…thorough.
At the Center Street Smokehouse, the servings are…thorough.

Genesee County proves that “folksy” is a loaded term; it’s great for PR, but belies the reality. Peggy Tyrrell is a respected crafter, and when the pandemic froze the expo circuit (she did 45 shows a year), she turned her property into the Country Cottage and like any New York City placemaker, had her fans come to her.

As a frontline town in the War of 1812 — one that didn’t get burned to the ground — Batavia is well-known to war and history buffs. 

But for one day, it was all about the cosmic. I was in a town so many people had not heard of that so many people wanted to be in. Around me were people from Peru, India, South Korea. Ironically, the clouds brought us closer together, as we shared camera tips for better pictures.

It reminded me of a date I found while researching eclipse lore: 585 BC, and the Battle of Halys between Lydia and the Median Empire. It had ravaged both kingdoms for six years before, right over the combatants, the Moon eclipsed the Sun.

Awed, both parties declared peace. And it can seem almost naive to think of an eclipse, a totally natural event, as a kumbaya moment, but it is. People with nothing in common suddenly have a touchpoint, something bigger than themselves. 

“I have chills!” a woman from Mexico said to me, watching as the daylight quickly faded into darkness, while the horizons glowed in a golden half-light. What could I say? I did, too.

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David Perry
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