Desert of Maine in Freeport.  Photo by Gordon Chibroski

Freeport’s Desert of Maine is pitching a final round of projects in its multi-year, multimillion-dollar revitalization push aimed at cementing the landmark as an educational and artistic hub.

The last of the projects include up to 18 A-frame guest cabins, the reconstruction of an 1800s farmhouse for a living history museum and the restoration of the Tuttle Barn — a structure originally built in the 1840s that would serve as a year-round music and community-use venue.

The effort was launched in 2020, after new owners, Mela and Doug Heestand, bought the tourist attraction in 2018.

In April, the desert incorporated a nonprofit — the Desert of Maine Center for Arts and Ecology — with the goal of enhancing arts and educational programming. Over the summer, according to the organization’s Executive Director Hannah Gathman, that goal translated into inviting more students from local school districts to the desert.

“Field trips have been happening at the Desert of Maine for a long time with previous owners,” said Gathman. “Those are now quite different than they used to be, with a focus on the geological history of what made this weird place, the agricultural history of what happened with the farmland and the Tuttle family who ran the farm, and then what happened with the ecological history and future of reforestation on the desert.”

The area is technically not a desert due to the amount of rainfall the area receives. The unusual, sandy environmental feature was caused by overgrazing on the roughly 40-acre piece of property and has been a Freeport landmark and attraction for nearly 100 years.

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A site walk for the new projects was scheduled for Monday. Gathman said the organization is waiting to hear from the town about when a final review of the application will take place. A mini-golf course, as well as a fossil dig site that have already received town approval, should also be ready by next season, Gathman added.

The upgrades at the Desert of Maine align with an ongoing push by Freeport to build economic strength through experiential elements in the downtown area, according to Freeport Town Council Chairperson Daniel Piltch. Freeport is known by many for its retail shopping, and particularly the flagship L.L. Bean store in the heart of downtown.

“The revisioning project that we have going on is really limited to downtown, but the conversations that we’ve been having around that certainly I think would apply town-wide,” said Piltch. “I think a big theme that we’ve all been talking about is we want Freeport to be not just a place you come to buy something but a place you come to do something.”

Other examples of this effort, Piltch said, include the new Meetinghouse Arts performance hall, one or two new art galleries downtown and an increased focus on outdoor recreation offerings.

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