The Desert of Maine has undergone aesthetic transformation since new ownership in 2018 Contributed / Desert of Maine

Freeport tourist attraction The Desert of Maine has incorporated a new nonprofit that owners say will help connect it with the community, local arts, culture and the environment.

The Desert of Maine will still operate as a commercial business while the Desert of Maine Center for the Arts and Environmental Education takes the lead on all of the programming on the property. The center’s director, Hannah Gathman, has a plethora of ideas.

“Our priorities are ecology, environmental education, art and music,” Gathman said, adding that tourists should still come visit for a variety of planned activities.

When Mela and Doug Heestand bought the Desert of Maine on Dune Road in 2018, they wanted to ensure the business was actively connecting the community through environmental education.

“We want to make sure this is an enticing place for locals,” Mela said.

A springhouse on the property, a draw for tourists from all over who came to drink water with “healing properties,” was buried under 30 feet of sand during the WWII era and was recently excavated. Kristen McNerney / The Forecaster

On the site of a working farm from the 1800s, there is now a Ford Model T taking visitors back to the 1920s, when the desert first opened as a tourist destination, and an excavated springhouse built in the 1930s when it was believed some spring water contained healing properties along with an expanded playground and a gemstone village. Work has begun on an interactive fossil dig exhibit and there are plans for a mini golf course. A fully restored visitor’s center provides maps and a detailed history of the farm. Twenty-three campsites and about a mile of nature trails are also available during the desert’s season of May to November.


“I’ve been taking groups of kids there for around 20 years,” said Marisa Lore Tobey, an educator. “We just went with a group of 12 kids two weeks ago and it was totally different. … I think it’s always been underutilized for educational purposes. The new owners are going above and beyond.”

With the new features, Heestand said she wants to challenge the misconception some locals might have of the desert being a tourist trap.

Desert of Maine Center for the Arts and Environmental Education plans to use the historic Tuttle Barn as a music venue in the future. Kristen McNerney / The Forecaster

In the Tuttle Barn, the only remaining artifact from the Tuttle Farm dating back to the 1840s, Gathman will teach visiting students about the property’s history through demonstrations and reenactments.

In a short version of the farm’s history, overgrazing of almost 200 sheep during the Civil War era contributed to the erosion of topsoil, exposing 20 acres of glacial sand dunes from Maine’s last ice age over 10,000 years ago. Visitors can read multiple signs throughout the dunes that tell this history as well.

By 2023, Gathman hopes the barn will serve as a music venue.

Out on the trails, Gathman plans for guided nature walks that teach visitors about how to take care of the environment so they can understand how human error contributed to erosion of the land. Staff ecologist Deb Perkins will teach them how to nurture native plants and help pollinators thrive.


Other objectives include nature-based art workshops for kids, a book reading and singing of “The Sands of Time” by Lena Champlin, and educational lectures with Maine-based authors. Gathman said she also hopes to have arts and crafts for adults, as well as partnerships with breweries to provide entertainment for all age ranges.

With an ADA compliant features, no one will miss out on the opportunities.

“My mother had not been there in 70-plus years,” said Joyce Veilleux, a Freeport resident who recently visited. “We were both amazed by the careful thought and research that has gone into all the owners’ decisions. … Little things that will make the experience great for all, like putting all the interpretive signs at a level and angle so that a person in a wheelchair can easily read them, making sure that surfaces are hard packed so wheel chairs can access the cafe.”

“My hope is that more and more locals continue to come,” Gathman said.

The Desert of Maine is open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and weekends from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

This story was updated to correct the spelling of Hannah Gathman’s name. 

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