The newly constructed labyrinth at Freeport’s Desert of Maine. Courtesy of Mela Heestand

Freeport’s Desert of Maine underwent a significant facelift over the winter as part of a multi-year, multi-million-dollar revitalization push that started in 2020.

The tourist attraction is owned by Mela and Doug Heestand, who purchased the property in 2018. Last week, the owners announced that the desert will be opening for the 2021 season starting with weekends in May and then daily come June.

While technically not a desert due to the amount of rainfall the area receives, the landscape is in fact sand and not silt, which is a common misconception according to Mela Heestand. The unusual environmental feature was caused by overgrazing on the roughly 40-acre piece of property and has been a Freeport landmark for nearly 100 years.

Exhibit upgrades for the 2021 season will include the newly excavated spring house, a labyrinth, a fossil dig activity and a 1924 Model T Ford.

An image of Desert of Maine’s spring house, which was unearthed in 2020 after being buried for almost 60 years. Courtesy of Desert of Maine

The spring house, which was built in 1938, was partially buried in sand during the desert’s closure through World War II. By 1962, the gazebo-like structure was completely covered.

In September of 2020, the Heestands unearthed the house, which at that point, was buried under 25 feet of sand.

Despite the structure being rotten, “the stonework at the foundation is just absolutely incredible,” Heestand said. “So, we’ll be reconstructing it based on historic photos.”

The labyrinth, also known as the gemstone village, is designed for children to search for hidden treasures, and the fossil dig activity is expected to launch later in the season, as the desert is still consulting with museum experts. The Model T will serve as a “tribute exhibit” for the desert’s 1920s roots.

The landmark also has plans in late summer to begin to transform a barn into a performing arts center, which Heestand hopes will offer “a really robust calendar of artists.”

According to Freeport Council Chair John Egan, the desert’s revitalization plans align with the town’s larger initiative to bring experiential elements to Freeport’s retail dominated economy.

“The Desert of Maine is a key element of that plan,” Egan said, also noting a group called The Arts and Cultural Alliance of Freeport, which in partnership with the first congregational church, aims to promote music events in town.

Additional renovations at the desert include a natural playground, improved electricity and water infrastructure, a new parking lot and a new café. Heestand also mentioned ecology tours, plans to break ground for luxury cabins and design work for a mini-golf course.

“The golf course is going to tell the story of the Desert of Maine hole by hole,” Heestand said.

Looking ahead, Heestand aims to cement the Desert of Maine as a nonprofit called the Desert of Maine Center for the Arts and Environmental Education.

“I would like to make our nonprofit a really robust set of programs for kids and families, and particularly, for communities in need,” Heestand added.

Mela Heestand, co-owner of the Desert of Maine in Freeport. File photo

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