Maine's "most famous natural phenomenon" is also a reminder about responsible land use
When we think of the beautiful state of Maine you think of dense forrests, jagged coast lines, and lakes surrounded by wooded areas. One thing you don't expect to find is a desert, especially next to the coastal town of Freeport, Maine. While Freeport is known for the expansive shopping mecca with LL Bean and other retailers lining the downtown; it also provides a glimpse into history, proper land use, and ancient geology in the 40-acre "Desert of Maine."
Over 40 acres of sand and silt with rolling sand dunes in this bizzare area get too much precipitation (as Mainers know) to classify as a desert. But this place isnt just a tiny little man made sandbox, its the real deal, its a desert! While this natural phenomena pulls in around 30,000 tourists a year, the most interesting part is the ancient geology counteracted by modern-day land misuse.
Thousands of years ago, during the last ice age, large glaciers covered what is now Maine. These glaciers scraped rocks and soil as they expanded, grinding rocks into pebbles, and grinding those pebbles down into what is known as glacial silt—a granular material with a texture somewhere between sand and clay. Layers of glacial silt piled up as high as 80 feet in some parts of southern Maine. Over time, topsoil began to cover the silt, hiding the sandy substance beneath a layer of organic matter that encouraged the growth of Maine's iconic coniferous forests.
Native American tribes, including the Abenaki, took advantage of the fertile topsoil, farming the land long before European settlers claimed it as their own. But the late 1700s saw an expansion of Maine's agricultural business, as settlers and colonists moved northward from Massachusetts (or sailed from Europe) in search of land. One such farmer was William Tuttle, who bought a 300-acre plot of land next to Freeport in 1797. On that land, Tuttle founded a successful agricultural enterprise, growing crops and raising cattle in the shadow of a small post-and-beam barn he built. His descendants diversified the business, adding sheep in order to sell their wool at textile mills.
The Tuttle family ran into trouble though as they were not properly rotating their crops, depleting the soil of its nutrients. The Tuttle's sheep enterprise also wreaked havoc on the soil as the livestock pulled vegetation out at the roots, causing soil erosion. One day, the family noticed a patch of silt the size of a dinner plate—their poor land management had caused the topsoil to completely erode, revealing the glacial mixture below their land. The Tuttles didn't immediately give up on the farm, but eventually that patch of sand grew to cover over 40 acres, swallowing farming equipment—and even entire buildings—in the process. By the early 20th century, the Tuttles had completely abandoned the land. In 1919, a man named Henry Goldrup bought the property for $300 and opened it as a public tourist attraction six years later.
While the Desert of Maine is a tourist attraction, it's really a reminder of what can happen to farmland that isn't properly cared for. The same overgrazing and poor rotation of crops (along with years of sustained drought) contributed to the Dust Bowl, a decade of severe dust storms that devastated the south Plains in the 1930s. But it's not just a risk of years past—currently, the United States Department of Agriculture has labeled areas in California and across the Midwest as being at high or very high vulnerability for desertification.
So while this may be a worthwhile visit to see the acres of sand dunes, when the kids are busy rolling around in the beach-like sand explain to them how this happened and the importance of taking care of our planet.