Freeport couple hope to heat up Desert of Maine

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FREEPORT — Maine’s most famous (and only) “desert” has new owners.

Freeport residents Mela and Doug Heestand purchased the Desert of Maine, they announced Dec. 5, with plans to revamp the attraction that’s been visited by Mainers and tourists for almost a century.

Mela Heestand would not disclose the price for the 40-acre property, which includes the “desert” and surrounding trails, a house – previously occupied by former owners Ginger and Gary Currens – a 48-site campground, gift shop and a more-than 225-year-old barn that is the last remaining evidence that the desert was once a fertile farm.

Heestand did say, however, they paid slightly less than the $750,000 asking price announced last July.

Her husband will continue to run an information technology business, she said. Heestand, a former college professor, said she’ll be primarily in charge of the day-to-day operations of the Desert of Maine.

Her commute to work will be a quick one. Their home on Dune Drive sits only a short walk through the woods from the desert at 95 Desert Road.

The couple is planning to renovate all facets of the Desert of Maine, Heestand said, including a marketing reboot that “aims to draw increasing numbers of out-of-town visitors to the campground and desert tours.”

They hope to expand the family-friendly activities that are already part of the “desert experience,” she said, including sand art projects, gemstone hunts and the mining sluice. The Heestands also plan to work with master timber framer Arron Sturgis to restore the historic barn as a performance venue for music and theater.

Their priority, Heestand said, is to create a place that Maine residents will enjoy and take pride in for many years to come. She said they’ll promote it locally by offering free tours and admission to Freeport residents during the next spring/summer season, which starts May 15, 2019.

“We want families in the area to think of the Desert of Maine as a place they can come to spend the day walking the trails, learning about history or just taking in the view,” Heestand said.

The Currenses had owned the property since 2004, shortly after their first visit to the tourist attraction. They are originally from Florida, moved to Belgrade in 1998 and later to Freeport.

Ginger Currens in July said it was simply time for them to move on spend more time down with their family in the South.

Realtor Mia Johnson of Northeast Campground Brokers said Thursday that there was a great deal of interest in the property, but she believed the Heestands’ familiarity with it, their intent to maintain all current employees, and their aim to continue and enhance the educational opportunities appealed to the Currenses.

Heestand said she hadn’t heard about the desert until her children discovered it shortly after the family moved to town from Massachusetts a year and a half ago.

When news broke that it was for sale, she said, there was concern about who might buy the property and make changes to it. She said that led her and her husband to the conclusion that owning the business would be a good move.

“The history is really interesting,” Heestand said. “It’s something that’s worth preserving and digging into more.”

Although its rolling sand dunes mimic a landscape usually found in the western U.S., the Desert of Maine is not considered a true desert because it receives too much rainfall.

And the dunes are technically not sand, either; they’re silt. During the last ice age, 10,000 years ago, glaciers covered what is now Maine. As they expanded, they scraped rocks and soil, grinding rocks down to pebbles and pebbles down to what is known as glacial silt – a sediment material somewhere between sand, which is more porous, and clay, which is less so.

Still, tucked amid a forest of lush pine trees, the desert is one of Maine’s most curious and sought-after natural phenomena, a product of ancient geology and human flaw.

In 1797, William Tuttle purchased the then-300-acre parcel and operated a successful farm for decades.

But due to poor crop rotation and overgrazing by sheep, Tuttle’s descendants lost the farm after years of trying the save the land from erosion that exposed the underlying silt, which eventually swallowed the buildings and the pasture.

In 1919, Henry Goldrup bought the abandoned property for $300. He opened it as a tourist attraction six years later.

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or jvansaun@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

Mela, left, and Doug Heestand, with sons Nicky and William, and dog Autumn, finalized the acquistion of the Desert of Maine Dec. 5.

The Desert of Maine in Freeport, with iconic fiberglass camels Sadie and Sandy, has been a tourist attraction for nearly a century.

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