How Forty Acres of Desert Appeared in the Middle of Maine

Maine has miles and miles of coastline, but its most spectacular sand dunes are nowhere near water. For that, you'd have to head inland, toward the vast, sandy expanse known as the "Desert of Maine." There, thanks to hapless farmers and some unusual geology, you'll find rolling dunes in the land of lobster and pine trees.

The Desert of Maine is not a true desert—it's far too wet and cold up there—but that hasn't stopped it from becoming a kitschy tourist trap, complete with merch like sand paintings, gem stones, and every desert-themed souvenir you can think of. In the more freewheeling days of the 1950s, an irascible camel named Sarah would harass visitors who tried to take photos. Sarah was eventually sent to a zoo, and tourists are now welcomed by two better behaved life-sized camel statues.

That's what the Desert of Maine is now. Far more interesting is how it came to be; how sand swallowed up a 18th century farm to create the dunes we see today. And that story actually begins 10,000 years ago.

How Forty Acres of Desert Appeared in the Middle of Maine

At the end of the last Ice Age, glaciers made their way through Maine, grinding rocks into glacial silt—or what to us looks like desert sand. In the intervening millennia, fertile topsoil capped the silt, hiding the "desert" underneath, where it remained relatively undisturbed for the next several millennia.

Eventually, 18th century farmers came to Maine finding forests, which they cleared into farmland. Among them was William Tuttle, who bought 300 acres in 1797 and worked it successfully for decades. Tuttle's descendants weren't quite as adept, though, letting the soil erode with the help of poor crop rotation and overgrazing by sheep.

"One day, a patch of sand the size of a dinner plate became exposed," reported the New York Times back in 2006. "It grew until the family became alarmed. But it was too late." Like a receding hairline of doom, the desert eventually engulfed the farm. The now-useless land was sold to an enterprising Henry Goldrup for $300 in 1919. By 1927, he had opened it for visitors, and we have our fake camel-adorned tourist trap. Not the best of fates for an abandoned farm, but perhaps not the very worst either. [Smithsonian, New York Times]

Images via Daderot/Wikimedia Commons