Travelers from New York and New England have long headed to Maine to escape the summer heat. Maine license plates read “Vacationland” as if that wasn’t made obvious by the line of cars heading north every Friday night.
Most of those folks are heading for mountains, pine trees and rocky shores. But one attraction hopes to offer them something completely different: a Sahara-like desert.
For nearly 100 years, this heavily advertised tourist trap has caught the uninformed vacationer off guard. How can there be a desert in Maine? There’s one way to find out.
Upon arrival, you’re greeted with signs saying “You’ll be glad you came” and pictures of camels and men in stereotypical desert garb. But what you see is a very large fence… if you want to experience the desert, you must pay your admission fee.
Once you’ve paid, you’re allowed through the gate at the expectedly large gift shop, and you see, well, something that’s pretty much just as it was advertised. In front of you is a landscape of sand, with some dunes topping 75 feet. There’s a jeep tour, and a model camel you can pose with.
But it’s not quite the Sahara. It rains often, and the area is lined with large pine trees, and in places, greenery pokes through the sand to bely the idea that these are “desert” conditions. In fact, there isn’t even “sand” here.
Freeport was first settled by Europeans in 1700. It was in a good location where a river met the sea, and it thrived. At the turn of the 19th century, the Tuttle family had a farm on the then fertile property. After a 100 years, the top soil was tired and eroding, and when the descendants of the original Tuttles took to potato farming, which is hard on soil and finally sheep grazing, they noticed that patches of sand started to appear in their fields.
Over time, the sand spread and actually increased as though it were flowing from the ground. All vegetation was consumed, and finally the spring house and other buildings were being covered by the fine, crop-killing dunes.
In 1919, with 40 acres of the farm covered, the Tuttles abandoned the property as useless. But Henry Goldrup didn’t see a useless farm when he paid $300 for the property. He saw gold in the sand, in the form of tourist dollars.
In 1925, he opened the Desert of Maine as a natural curiosity complete with a gift shop. The surviving Tuttle barn was made into a farming museum, and 90 years later, the attraction still exists.
But this is no desert. It’s an exposed pocket of sand-like glacial silt, left over from the ice age. As the glaciers moved over the mountains to the north, they ground the rock into a fine silt, and carried it south. Much of it was deposited in present-day Freeport when the glaciers melted, and over the course of 10,000 years, the compressed silt was covered with top soil.
This is what the Tuttles were farming, and when the top soil eroded, the sand-like silt was free. No longer compressed by glaciers or topsoil, the silt vegetation-killing silt expanded, causing erosion, until it finally engulfed the entire area.
So, despite the advertisements, there is no “desert” in Maine, but there is an interesting bit of geology and a lesson to famers to take care of their topsoil.