As a relative new co-owner of the Desert of Maine, Mela Heestand seeks to make the Freeport tourist destination more of a community hub. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

FREEPORT — The Desert of Maine draws all ages: the adults who are intrigued by how such a thing can exist this far north, and the kids fascinated by the sea of sand.

“This is a giant sandbox,” Mela Heestand said with a smile as she looked over the widespread dunes Monday. She and her husband Doug purchased the 40-acre Desert Road property in December 2018. About 20-30 of those acres comprise the “desert” of silt – not sand, as some might think – that in the 18th century functioned as a successful farm.

A destination for visitors from near and far since it opened in 1925, the Desert of Maine has shifted its focus from being a haven for tourists to being a community-centered gathering spot for area families, and lovers of nature and the arts. The fences that had surrounded the dunes have come down, and the $10 admission fee is being waived for residents of Freeport, Brunswick, North Yarmouth, Yarmouth, Durham and Pownal.

Chris Torriello of Torriello Construction has spent this summer and autumn revamping the Desert of Maine’s nearly century-old gift shop. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

Free admission was first offered to Freeport residents, but “it makes sense that all adjacent towns should be given that same privilege,” Heestand said. Foster and kinship families also get in for free.

Roughly 80 percent of the approximately 6,000 visitors this year came from outlying communities and states, but growing local patronage is one of the Heestands’ goals. A no-charge “Moose is Loose” event drew almost 200 people, mostly from Freeport, Yarmouth and Brunswick, Sept. 28, Heestand recalled.

That gathering celebrated the new playground built by Steve Smith of Renaissance Timber, which is highlighted by a giant moose climbing structure. The playground is due to be expanded with swing sets, a small zipline, and a small lookout tower, and Freeport artist Abigail Swarts recently repainted the iconic camel that was built in the 1950s.

Offering free admission to locals hasn’t had much impact on revenue, Heestand said. “Most of our revenue comes from tours, and it’s not local people coming,” she said, explaining that the operation “isn’t super revenue-driven just yet; we just really want to make some initial changes, and let it develop organically with the support of the community.”

Chris Toriello of Toriello Construction has also been working to revamp the nearly 100-year-old gift shop, where an art gallery is to be opened next year.

“It’s so neat to see these families from all over the country and all over the world come together at this unique little spot,” Toriello said. “It’s almost like ‘Field of Dreams,’ only with sand, in the sense that people say, ‘we were just told to come.'”

The Desert of Maine is special not just for its geology, but also “the intangibles of all the relationships that people are forming,” Toriello said. “… It brings nostalgia, history and education together, along with fun.”

A series of six concerts, folk and classical music alike, is tentatively scheduled for next year in the Tuttle Barn. In addition, Heestand and her husband have worked with the Freeport Historical Society, and ecologists and geologists to forge new programs for local schools and visitors, with an eye toward making the Desert of Maine “a place that Freeport residents take pride in and treasure,” according to Heestand.

The Heestands had just returned from Maine Fiddle Camp in Montville last year when they learned Ginger and Gary Currens had put the property up for sale. “It’s a wonderful communal music experience,” she said. “… We saw this barn, and (thought) we could bring that same kind of energy here.”

The 1827 Tuttle Barn hearkens back to the days when a successful farm operated there. Poor crop rotation and sheep overgrazing caused the land to be lost to erosion that exposed the underlying silt, which ultimately consumed the buildings and pasture.

A former college professor, Heestand runs the Desert’s day-to-day operations. Doug Heestand, who runs an information technology business, is in charge of the Desert’s 23-site campground, and her sister, Jennifer Jones, covers the gift shop.

The Desert of Maine – which closed Monday and opens again next May – offers tours during the warmer months, and visitors can take free self-guided tours along the dunes and surrounding trails during the offseason. A smartphone application created by Heestand offers audio tours, and brochures are available for the less technologically inclined.

All manner of fall and winter activities, from hiking to sledding, are welcome along the famed dunes, said Heestand, who takes a relaxed approach to public access.

After all, “you can’t break the desert,” she said.

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