Faces of Duluth: Nathan Bentley

Nathan Bentley, in Duluth, in mid-October, four weeks into Bentleyville setup.

Faces of Duluth tells the stories of the people behind Duluth’s iconic attractions, hidden gems and everything in between. Traveling to Duluth? Learn the locals’ tips and tricks for seeing all the city has to offer.

Dubbed the “Christmas City of the North,” Duluth transforms into a holiday wonderland with events and festivities at every turn, from the Christmas City Express train ride experience and Duluth’s Winter Village to historic Glensheen Mansion holiday tours. At the center of Duluth’s holiday festivities is Bentleyville Tour of Lights, located in Bayfront Festival Park along the shores of Lake Superior, featuring “America’s Largest Free Walk-Through Lighting Display.” Shining bright with 5 million lights and brilliant displays, one of the main attractions is the animated 12-story steel Christmas tree and ball covered with more than 150,000 sparkling LED lights. This year, Bentleyville is open November 19 through December 26.

It all started with one person – Nathan Bentley – who pulled out all the stops to decorate his home with holiday lights 19 years ago. Today, it has grown into a 40-day event that attracts 350,000+ visitors. In between checking all 5 million light bulbs (kidding!), Nathan took a moment to share more about what he calls his “out-of-control hobby” that is Bentleyville, and how visitors can enjoy all the season has to offer in Duluth.

What’s your Duluth story?

I came to Duluth when I was about eight years old and grew up in the Central Hillside neighborhood.

What do you love about Duluth?

I love the people. People are very nice here in Duluth.

Tell us about Bentleyville. How did you get started?

Bentleyville was strictly an accident. I lived in Esko on Highway 61. I started putting up a bunch of lights, then some of the neighbors put up lights, so I put up more lights. Then I was going overboard with some of the stuff that people don’t normally see by bringing in an aerial lift to put lights high up in the trees so that you could see them way over my house. One of my employees at my company thought I was getting carried away and she said, “You’re Bentleyville,” like Whoville in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” I thought that was catchy, so we made a banner at my sign company and hung it across my driveway.

That’s how Bentleyville was born back in 2003. As my family grew, we moved to a larger home outside of Cloquet and made Bentleyville bigger and better. My friends and neighbors helped with set up, and one of my neighbors dressed up as Santa Claus. We started collecting food for the Salvation Army and did a toy drive, added a grand entrance that looks like a castle, and eventually converted nearby horse fields to parking lots. I hired a bus company and transported 72,000 people to my house to walk through the lighted displays, kept adding different things like popcorn, marshmallows for s’mores and hot apple cider. I wanted to make it accessible for everybody so I brought in a blacktopping company to create trails through the woods so that anyone in wheelchairs, strollers, etc. could enjoy it.

After four years there, former Duluth Mayor Don Ness asked if I’d bring the light show to Duluth’s Bayfront Park. Our first year here in Duluth was 2009.

Can you give us a sneak peek at what’s new at Bentleyville this year?

Every year we invest between $150,000 and $200,000 into new displays to keep it fresh. We’re always listening to and acting on visitors’ ideas to improve Bentleyville. With the popularity of social media, we’re always adding cool, new spots to take photos. This year, we’re adding gigantic swing sets in a number of areas, including Lover’s Lane, so couples or families can sit on this extra-large swing set decorated with garland and lights, with the Aerial Lift Bridge in the background. I think it’s going to be a fantastic new addition!

This year will be the largest changeup in our history, with updates to approximately 50-60 percent of all of our light displays. Our front entrance, which has been a castle for the last 18 years, is now going to be a brand-new gingerbread entrance. We’re also retiring some of our older displays to keep it fresh and surprising, especially for annual visitors who make it a holiday tradition to visit Bentleyville.

What are some of your most memorable stories or moments?

I’ve had people tell me they had their first date at Bentleyville, were engaged there and have gotten married there. There are usually three to four weddings each year under the big tree. Visitors have said they’ve named their dogs and kids after Bentleyville, too.

Now that we’re 19 years into it, some who first visited Bentleyville in the early years when it was at my home, are now married, have children, and they’re bringing their children to visit. We’ve got a second generation of memories being made.

What makes Bentleyville – and Duluth – so magical during the holiday season?

Bentleyville is magical thanks to its location on Lake Superior in Bayfront Park. It’s a place where memories are made, and it’s all about celebrating tradition. It’s magical to have an ore ship come through the iconic Aerial Lift Bridge, and the lights on the hill add to the ambiance. The location is fantastic, and visitors can come in by train, car or walk in on the Lakewalk. It’s also magical because it’s free!

What are some of your favorite things to do with guests from out of town?

 I love the Lake Superior Railroad Museum at The Depot. And there are so many great events to check out in Duluth throughout the year.

What’s your favorite area in Bentleyville?

I like to hang out by the fire pits where visitors roast marshmallows for s’mores because I love to listen to them talk about their experience. They’re always amazed at how we can pull it off. I also hang out by the cookie house because it’s up on a little hill and I can see all the visitors coming in.

What are your tips for Bentleyville visitors?

To avoid the busiest times, I highly recommend visiting on the weekdays or later in the evening. Make an evening of it – go out for dinner, go shopping and then walk over to Bentleyville at 8 or 8:30 p.m. – the lights are on, the hot chocolate, cookies and popcorn are all still available, the fires are still roaring until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays. I also recommend dressing in layers. It can be windy because we’re right by the water, so dress warm! If you forget your winter gear, we also have scarves, hats and everything you need to stay warm in our gift shop.

As a nonprofit, we have a mission of collecting food and toys for the Salvation Army. So, I’d also ask visitors to bring a food item or toy that will then be distributed to families in need throughout the community and seven centers in Northeastern Minnesota and Wisconsin. Last year, Bentleyville visitors generously donated 18,000 pounds of food and 2,787 toys.

Insider tip: Drive up Skyline Parkway and see the lights from high up – it’s so cool and colorful, it’s amazing. It truly makes Duluth the perfect city for the holidays.

Also, it takes about 2,400 volunteers to help set up Bentleyville every Saturday and Sunday for two months leading up to opening night, provide support when it’s open and take all of the displays down after December 26th. For more information or to sign up as a volunteer, visit www.bentleyvilleusa.org/volunteer-setup/.

Posted on October 27, 2022