Tim's Turn | Feb. 2020
It’s well known that Sally sifts sand in the sun by the seashore. It’s also general knowledge that the shore isn’t the only place you’ll find sand. A lesser known fact is that a unique attraction in Maine provides the opportunity to enjoy a Sahara-like experience complete with sifting sand—many miles from the seashore or the Sahara.
In fact, Sally (name has been changed to protect the fact that she has quit selling sea shells by the seashore) is about seven miles from the nearest Atlantic Ocean beach when she sifts sand at the Desert of Maine (DOM). Clarification: It’s not actual sand; it’s glacial silt, and it’s not a real desert because it gets too much precipitation. It is surrounded by a pine forest, which the owners are allowing to thrive and encroach, meaning each year there will be less “desert.”
As an exposed tract of glacial silt near Freeport, Maine, DOM is a 40-acre geological oddity that hosts approximately 30,000 visitors a year. It even has a camel, albeit one made of fiberglass, which was added in the 1950s. Henry Goldrup bought the land for $300, dubbed it the Desert of Maine and welcomed his first visitor in 1925. It became an immediate success, thanks to a new wave of motoring tourists searching for new attractions to visit.
My wife Kathleen and I visited DOM last summer. As a roadside attractions aficionado, I had been looking forward to a trip to the desert, and it exceeded my expectations. And, of course, we took selfies in front of the fiberglass camel.
Local residents Mela and Doug Heestand purchased the property in late 2018 with the intent to make the facility more welcoming to local residents as a place to call their own. To encourage such visitation, they offered free admission to Freeport residents throughout 2019. The first and maybe the largest change they intend to make was the suspension of tram tours, instead offering walking tours where guests, such as us, get to walk in the sand, learn about the local geology, tour the pine forest, and experience the solitude of the property.
The Heestands have stated they want to keep building on the legacy of what arguably is one of the most unique natural attractions in the state. They plan to build fact-based programs about Maine history and the lousy local farming techniques that are credited for disturbing the land, causing the silt to surface. They have hired a local artisan to renovate the beautiful 200-year-old barn, which serves as a museum and event space. The campground received a major renovation in 2019—a new rustic playground was created, and for the first time, several events took place inside the barn, including music performances and art exhibits.
Inside the visitors’ center, where the $10 tour fee is collected, the walls are covered with memorabilia and historic photos of the property over the years.
I loved the place and plan to visit again as the Heestands reinvent an iconic attraction for a new generation and as they fine-tune their mission to be the place “where art and nature come to play.”
Tim O’Brien is a veteran outdoor entertainment journalist and is a longtime Funworld contributor. He has authored many books chronicling the industry’s attractions and personalities and is the only journalist in the IAAPA Hall of Fame.