Desert of Maine.
The Desert of Maine's camel statue was given a 2019 makeover by local artist Abigail Gray Swartz.

Desert of Maine

Field review by the editors.

Freeport, Maine

In a state known for natural attractions -- moose, rocks, lobsters -- the Desert of Maine sticks out as an arid anomaly.

Picnic before the sandstorms.
The Desert was once the Tuttle Farm. Then the sandstorms arrived.

The Desert began as a giant prehistoric sand pile, blown here by Maine's north winds after the last Ice Age, then gradually hidden beneath a thin layer of soil. In the 1860s sheep grazed the grass on top and ate down to the sand. A small patch appeared -- and then the wind ripped it out of the ground and piled it into dunes. By the early 1900s the dunes were so high that they'd buried farm buildings and 50-foot-high trees.

Henry M. Goldrup (1898-1976) bought the old farm and opened it as the Desert of Maine in 1926. His vision, at first, was limited: he thought that the Desert would be a good place to set up his hot dog and ice cream stand. It turned out to be so popular that he started charging admission. He then started giving every visitor a free postcard, and is credited with inventing the bumper sticker. The line of cars waiting to get in spawned a second attraction, the "Hermit of Maine," who lived in a shack along the entrance road, built by Goldrup's family. The bearded Hermit -- actually a former vaudeville musician named Charlie Coffin -- charged 15 cents to take a peek inside the shack.

Buried pump house.
Roof of the Spring House just before it was overwhelmed. Now it's buried 15 feet deep.

Live camel days.
Tourists pose in 1941, during the Desert's live camel days.

Over the following years the Desert was occasionally home to a camel named Toona and a donkey named Pedro. The tops of cherry and apple trees, buried for decades, still bore fruit and were regarded as postcard-worthy wonders. Goldrup discovered an aquifer bubbling through the sand -- a real desert oasis -- and a Spring House was built around it, its water sold as therapeutic. Henry tried hard to keep the emphasis on the Desert's natural appeal. "He resisted all kinds of crazy ideas from people," his widow told the Pittsburgh Press in 1982, "like dressing employees up like Arabs."

When Henry died, the Desert went through several subsequent stewards. Mela and Doug Heestand bought the place in late 2018. "It was in our back yard, and we didn't even know it was there," said Mela. "The owners were selling and we were worried about who might buy it. So we thought, well, maybe we are those people."

Mela, a college professor, was excited about the environmental side of the Desert of Maine. "The things going on in the Desert are very unusual, worthy of study," she said. Where it once covered 120 acres, now it's down to 20. Tough-as-nails trees and mosses, impervious to sand, buttress the Desert's sides. The same Maine winds that originally whipped up the dunes are now blowing the Desert south into a creek, slowly washing it away.

What remains of the Desert, however, is its rugged core. Regardless of moss and wind, it isn't going anywhere any time soon. The roof of the Spring House is now buried under 15 feet of sand (The Heestands hope to dig it out). The short trees that grow in the Desert are in fact the tops of very tall trees, their trunks tunneling down to the water table below. The largest dune is 90 feet high.

Buried trees.
Early postcards celebrated the Desert's tenacious fruit-bearing trees.

Sand Museum.
Exotic sand, brought by visitors, on display in the Sand Museum.

The varied vegetation that's decayed within the Desert has stained its sand in over 100 different colors. Henry Goldrup, with painstaking precision, sprinkled the colored particles into "sand bottles," forming vertical patterns and pictures along the sides. The art was perfected by his daughter, Judy, and examples of her elaborate sand-bottle desert scenes, Southwestern tableaus, Maine lighthouses, and forest creatures can be seen in the Desert's barn. Also there is the "Sand Museum," a display of samples collected or donated by visitors from everywhere, including the Bering Sea in Alaska, Coyote Gulch in Utah, and magnetic sand from Lappollar, Chile.

The Heestands have plans for the Desert: lots of new interpretive signs, a 27-stop downloadable audio tour, expanding the barn into a music venue and art gallery, vehicle tours for the disabled, and reopening the Desert's campground. "I am a nerdy professor, but I understand that people want to have fun and be entertained," said Mela. For maximum entertainment value we recommend visiting the Desert on a warm, sunny day. It loses much of its Sahara appeal in the Maine rain, and during the winter months it becomes a generic field of snow.

Mela confirmed that the Desert of Maine is not considered a desert by scientists because it receives too much precipitation. But she also brought in a geologist who said that "the dune formation is desert-like," and confirmed that the Desert is, in fact, sand, not silt as was claimed in some earlier, dismissive reports.

Desert of Maine.
Tourists trundle across the dunes on the Desert's self-guided tour.

According to Mela, a lot of stories about the Desert of Maine were invented by long-gone tour guides, who were told by prior owners, "Say anything you want; just say it with sincerity." Some of the myths include 1) the sand appeared as a curse on a landowner who acquired the property dishonestly; 2) Henry Goldrup wanted to make bricks out of the Desert's sand, but was thwarted because it was silt (He didn't and it isn't); and 3) the Desert of Maine is a fraud, because the sand was trucked in. "That would be one of the dumbest things you could possibly do," said Mela. "It would be a ridiculous amount of sand. You'd never make enough money to break even."

Said Mela, "It's really important to me to get the Desert of Maine story straight. it's already interesting enough as it is. You don't have to make things up!"

Also see: White Sands: Alien Dunescape

Desert of Maine

Address:
95 Desert Rd, Freeport, ME
Directions:
I-295 exit 20. Turn west onto Desert Rd, and drive two miles to its end.
Hours:
Daily 9-5 mid-May to Halloween. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
207-850-3025
Admission:
$10 self-guided walking tour
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

The Big F IndianThe Big F Indian, Freeport, ME - 3 mi.
Giant L.L. Bean BootGiant L.L. Bean Boot, Freeport, ME - 3 mi.
Eartha: World's Largest Rotating GlobeEartha: World's Largest Rotating Globe, Yarmouth, ME - 4 mi.
In the region:
The Vision of Uncle Tom, Brunswick, ME - 10 mi.

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November 25, 2020

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