Mela Heestand, co-owner of the Desert of Maine in Freeport, shows off several old newspaper clippings and photos she has found in recent research. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

FREEPORT — Legend has it that William Tuttle settled the farmland that is now the Desert of Maine in the late 18th century.

Mela Heestand, co-owner of the Desert Road landmark since December 2018, doubts he ever existed.

The Desert of Maine, which opens again next May, consists of a 20-30-acre “desert” of silt – not sand, as many may think – that in the 18th century functioned as a successful farm. It offers tours in warmer months, and visitors can take free self-guided walks along the dunes and surrounding trails during the offseason.

After Heestand and her husband Doug bought the 40-acre property – home for nearly a century to tours covering subjects like the Desert’s farming history – they found “a jumble of misinformation, myth and the kind of jokes reserved for gullible tourists,” she said.

This late 19th-century photo shows a picnic on the property when it was still an active farm. The identities of the people are unknown. Courtesy Mela Heestand

“We take seriously our mission (of) educating,” she explained. “We want to tell the true story.”

One of the tales she wishes to correct – reported in the 1990s to travel writers from the New York Times, Smithsonian and Boston Globe – is the oldest one of all. Although the earlier tour stated Tuttle was the original settler in 1797, and built the still-standing barn around that time, there’s no sign of the man in census records or deeds, or anywhere that Heestand could find in researching Freeport records.

She instead found that John and Abigail Tuttle started farming the land in 1827. While Heestand has found that a piece of the barn may date to the late 1700s, it would have had to come from someplace else.

John had been living in neighboring Pownal and had a father named Burrill – no William there, or among John’s siblings, either.

One lingering story Heestand would like to substantiate surrounds John Tuttle’s house and barn. Tuttle, after flaring up at a Town Meeting in Pownal, had 24 yokes of oxen pull his home over the town line into Freeport, descendant Sara Fitts Hayes reported in an undated newspaper article.

The Tuttle family’s farming methods “left a pretty extreme mark on the landscape,” she noted. Under great economic pressure, the Tuttles and other Maine farmers at the time were forced to develop different crops each year, hoping one would prove viable. They focused heavily on hay and wood, but “were spread too thin to really take good care of their soil,” Heestand said.

Mela Heestand looks to bring more historically accurate stories to this year’s tours of the Desert of Maine. File

Overgrazing by large numbers of sheep likely caused widespread erosion, exposing the silt that had been underneath the topsoil.

But that history has brought attention to a chapter of history Heestand said would otherwise be forgotten. “There were actually many farms in (this) part of town, and all the families married one another,” she said. “There’s this whole world of farm families that have been erased, and we would like to bring that to the fore, and tell that history that has been lost.”

Holly Hurd, former curator and collections manager of the Freeport Historical Society, granted Heestand access to tax records and early 20th-century newspaper articles that shined a light on the Desert’s history. One story, likely from the 1930s, recalls the “strange emotions” felt by John Alvah Tuttle, grandson of settler John, as he saw cars drive by his Bridgton home bearing streamers that read “The Desert of Maine.”

“‘Nature does strange things,’ said Mr. Tuttle, as he thinks of the changes which Nature has wrought on his birthplace, which, in his mind’s eye, he sees as a fertile, active work-a-day farm, and not as the Desert of Maine,” states the article, clipped from an unknown newspaper.

By then, Henry Goldrup had bought the abandoned property for $300 and opened it as a tourist attraction in 1925. Contrary to stories that he wanted to get rich off the Desert and make bricks out of its silt, Goldrup was a naturalist who understood much about the land’s geology and really wanted an interesting place to run his hot dog stand, Heestand said she learned from his son.

Hurd called Heestand “an amazing researcher who really wants to know how all these things are together.”

Myths perpetuated with businesses like the Desert of Maine are common, Hurd said, but Heestand offers “an entirely new and much more modern angle, which is ‘let’s look at what the records actually say, and let’s look at why this story was told.'”

The Desert will introduce new museum-quality signage this year, and looks forward to incorporating her new findings into this summer’s tours, particularly given this year’s Maine Bicentennial. Heestand encourages people with information about, and photographs of, John Alvah Tuttle, Hayes, Geraldine Coffin Brown, or Charlie Coffin to contact her at [email protected].

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