Journeys: Bentleyville

Founder Nathan Bentley talks about how it began and how it continues to evolve

An overhead shot of Bentleyville all lit up in Bayfront Festival Park. Courtesy Visit Duluth.
all photos courtesy Visit Duluth

In the 15 years since the light display Bentleyville got its name, it has moved cities, grown from a team of one to more than 60 people helping out any given Saturday, and become a hallmark place for all ages to celebrate the magic of the holidays—plus it’s the country’s largest free walk-through lighting display.

Bentleyville’s 20-plus acres is open to visitors—free, as always—in Duluth’s Bayfront Festival Park through Dec. 26. Before you go, hear a little from founder Nathan Bentley about how everything got started and how it continues to change.

“When it started in 2001 and 2002, it was just an average home that was getting some drive-by attention. I didn’t call it anything, but one of my employees started calling it Bentleyville in 2003 when I was getting carried away. I was bringing in an aerial lift to hang snowflakes in the trees to look like snow coming down—there were maybe 100 or 200 snowflakes up high. I think it was that same year that we decided decorating the front of the house wasn’t enough and started to decorate the back of the house so people could walk around the property.

“It’s just my personality of trying to go over the top with whatever type of things I get involved in. I like to do things people don’t do or the things people talk about doing and never do. Everyone has big ideas, and they’re sitting around and making jokes about stuff, and I’m the one who would take the jokes and make them a reality.

“We’ve really tried to put a big effort of having more and more photo op locations. Last year we added two very, very large walk-in ornaments, which were fantastic for people taking photos. We also added a walk-in television for photos, and this year we added hearts that are 10-foot hearts people walk into with the real aerial lift bridge for the backdrop. People are getting engaged there now—well, they always do, but now they are underneath the heart canal. We also added a star arch, allowing the aerial lift bridge be a backdrop adding more photographs for people to take memories by. All of the displays are very, very large displays, like 68 feet long and 30 feet high.

“To set up, it takes seven weeks. This year started Saturday, Sept. 22, but every single day, we’re still maintaining. So many people are coming to help year after year. Some actually have their own expertise and areas they like to focus, on, like the Carney cable for power. There are people that build tunnels. There are the wagon ladies, who are five ladies that literally pull wagons through the park, fixing small displays, pulling wreaths off—they’re very universal in almost anything. Different people have different talents, and it’s trying to find out what those talents are.

“A lot of the memorable things are watching children roast marshmallows for the first time (we have fire pits for s’mores). Also, watching the children with their big eyes seeing all these lights as well as parents and family—people have never seen 5 million-plus lights.

“I think Bentleyville makes traditions for people. Some people have come all 15 years, like they always come on Thanksgiving or someone’s birthday that falls during Bentleyville season. For many people it’s their first date, and some people have gotten engaged here and been married. … Bentleyville has evolved by being embraced by the community and all over the Midwest.”

Thinking about visiting Bentleyville? Here are two things Bentley wants you to know:

  1. Grabbing food at Grandma’s is a must. It’s fun, it serves delicious food, and it’s one of Bentleyville’s supporters. “A lot of time after Bentleyville’s done, we get a big bowl of chili with lots of onions and lots of hot soup or something and wind up hanging out at Grandma’s.”

  2. As most people who come to Bentleyville realize, “Duluth is not just open in the summertime,” Bentley says. Glensheen Mansion has its holiday decorations up with special tours, winter festivities are happening, hiking trails are still open, and there’s no better weather for downhill ski favorite Spirit Mountain.

This interview has been edited for style, length, and clarity.

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