Heading down Main Street with a credit card in one hand and a giant tote bag in the other, the typical Freeport, Maine, visitors have only one thing on their minds: shopping. And who could blame them? With L.L. Bean’s flagship retail store as its anchor, Freeport’s main drag is a shopper’s paradise lined with big-name outlet stores, sporting-good suppliers and unique local shops.
But if you take off those bargain-hunting blinders, you’ll also catch glimpses of history preserved at almost every turn. Long before it became a shopping mecca, Freeport was known as a stagecoach stop, a New England trading center and eventually a major player in the shipbuilding industry. The town was incorporated in 1789 and was home to famous sea captains, explorers, politicians and industrialists.
Many townspeople say Freeport is the birthplace of Maine because it was there in 1820 that commissioners signed the papers separating Maine from the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Historians will tell you this legend hasn’t been documented, but don’t mention that when you’re enjoying a lazy man’s lobster or crabmeat-stuffed haddock at the Jameson Tavern (115 Main St., 207-865-4196). It’s said the papers were signed right in this 1779 building — over a few glasses of ale, no doubt.
The Freeport Historical Society offers a terrific self-guided walking tour to help you locate the tavern and 38 other historical homes and buildings around town. Stop by the society’s headquarters at the 1830 Harrington House (45 Main St., 207-865-3170, <www.freeporthistory.com>) for your map. While you’re there, tour the museum to see a 1777 13-star flag, a spinning wheel from the town’s oldest house and an extensive map collection. The historical society’s other property, Pettengill Farm, is also worth a visit. This early 19th-century saltwater farm shows what coastal farm life was like, and on the plaster walls of the original farmhouse, you can still see “graffiti” drawings of 19th-century sailboats.
Then take a 180-degree turn and see farming at its worst at the Desert of Maine (95 Desert Road, 207-865-6962, <www.desertofmaine.com>), a naturally occurring anomaly in the middle of Maine’s lush forests. The land was first cleared in 1797 by the Tuttle family, who grew potatoes and hay on 300 acres for several years. The Tuttles made the fatal mistake of overgrazing the land and failing to rotate their crops, which eroded the topsoil and uncovered a virtual desert — sand deposits left by a glacier in the last ice age. Today, you can view the desert and visit a museum in the Turtles’ barn.
The desert won’t leave you feeling dry for long, since Freeport is on the Atlantic coast. Be sure to experience the area’s seafaring heritage by cruising or sailing on Casco Bay, where you’re likely to see seals, bald eagles, osprey and great blue herons (don’t forget binoculars!). If you see what looks like the tower of an old castle peeking over the tree line near South Freeport, you’re looking at the remains of the Casco Castle Hotel. The Victorian hotel was built at the turn of the 20th century as a tourist attraction but burned down in 1914, leaving behind only the stone tower. Also take a trip out to Eagle Island State Historic Site (207-624-6080, <www.state.me.us/cgibin/doc/parks/find_one_name.pl?park_id=6>) and tour the home of Robert Peary, the first and only man to lead a party to the North Pole without using electrical devices.
Another historic stop is Seguin Island (207-443-4808, <www.seguinisland.org>), where you’ll see a lighthouse that George Washington himself ordered to be built in 1795. It’s Maine’s largest and contains the state’s only first-order Fresnel lens.
To arrange one of these sea cruises, call Atlantic Seal Cruises at (207) 865-6112. Owner Tom Ring is a master mariner and native Mainer, and he’ll tell some fascinating stories about the area and his family history there.
If Peary’s history as a North Pole explorer intrigues you, consider a quick jaunt to nearby Brunswick, Maine, and visit the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum (Hubbard Hall, 207-725-3416, <academic.bowdoin.edu/arcticmuseum>) at Bowdoin College. You’ll learn about the adventures of Peary and fellow explorer Donald MacMillan, an 1898 Bowdoin graduate. Their fur clothing, snowshoes, pickaxes and other tools are on display, along with photographs of their journey, maps and instruments. The museum also displays items relating to the cultures, geography and natural history of Labrador, Baffin Island, Ellesmere Island and Greenland.
Even shopping at the 24-hour LL Bean store (95 Main St., 800-341-4341 Ext. 17801, <www.IIbean.com>) includes a bit of history. The outdoor-gear, sporting-goods and clothing retailer is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. Its founder, Leon Leonwood Bean, was an avid outdoorsman who came up with the idea for a comfortable, functional boot in 1912 — an idea so popular that he quickly opened a store in Freeport to sell his “Maine Hunting Shoe.” Nearly a century later, L.L. Bean’s flagship store is much grander and has lots more to sell than just boots, but the company is still grounded in its history as a Freeport original.
After your long days of walking tours, sea cruises and desert exploration, you’ll have ample choices of places to stay, including several lovely bed-and-breakfasts and inns with histories of their own. The family-owned and -operated Harraseeket Inn (162 Main St., 800-342-6423, <www.harraseeketinn.com>) welcomes you with a lit fireplace and grand wooden staircase. Encompassing two buildings from 1798 and 1850, the hotel’s 1989 addition and renovation work give the place both historic charm and modern convenience (not to mention an indoor pool, five acres of grounds, elegant gardens and a five-minute walk to the town center). Save a meal or two for the inn’s two restaurants, the Maine Dining Room and the Broad Arrow Tavern.
Other lodging options include:
• Isaac Randall House Bed-and-Breakfast Inn (10 Independence Drive, 207-865-9295, <www.isaacrandall.com>)
• Comfort Suites (500 US Route 1,207-865-9300, <www.freeportcomfortsuites. com>)