Bentleyville: Lighting up the Community

Dennis O'Hara


Bayfront Festival Park, located on the shore of Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota, is home to outdoor music concerts, festivals, and various gatherings during the summer and fall. However, for six weeks in the wintertime, it gets transformed from an open space to a spectacular walk through light display. Bentleyville “Tour of Lights” is known as America’s largest free walk through lighting display. It boasts over four million lights and has been drawing visitors from near and far since 2009, which was the first year it was held at Bayfront Festival Park.

Mr. Bentley and His Vision

Nathan Bentley, founder of Bentleyville, first started the tradition in Esko, Minnesota in 2001, lighting up his home for the holidays. In 2004, the Bentley family moved to rural Cloquet, Minnesota where the vision grew. “I was enthralled with the display of lights when Nathan Bentley put together his Christmas light display at his home in Cloquet,” Margy Fraboni recalls.

In 2008, he was invited by the City of Duluth to bring his vision to Bayfront. “While working at Wells Fargo, employees could volunteer for different community events and I chose to help out at Bentleyville the first year it opened in Duluth,” says Fraboni.

The Magic of Bentleyville

Countless things make Bentleyville so special including sparkling lights, a 128 feet high dazzling tree, complimentary hot cocoa, cookies, and popcorn. You can even grab a roasting fork and roast marshmallows over an open fire. Santa and Mrs. Claus bring in the holiday spirit by jumping from an airplane on the opening night each year. Then they greet children every night, giving out free Bentleyville hats for children ten years old and under.

Children and adults alike can have their photo taken with Rudolph, the Bentleyville mascot that walks around and greets visitors. You can sign someone up on the Naughty or Nice List. The five-dollar per name donation helps keep Bentleyville, a non-profit, running. This past winter there were 1,327 names on the Nice List and 425 names on the Naughty List. The final night each year, they light up the sky with fireworks, illuminating the crowd and Lake Superior below. At Bentleyville, the holiday magic always surrounds you.

Holiday Tradition

Over the past years, Bentleyville has grown dramatically. In 2009, there were 150,000 visitors. In 2017, it hit a record crowd of over 330,000 holiday enthusiasts. Tim Rogentine, event coordinator for Bentleyville says, “This is my fifth season with Bentleyville and I was amazed to hear how many times I heard the phrase “We came last year and this is now our family tradition!” or “This is our (second, third, seventh, etc.) time visiting this year!” We enjoy being able to have a positive effect on our guests’ lives during the holidays.”

Locals know that visiting Bentleyville on the weekends tends to be a bit more crowded and plan their visits accordingly. Another option to view the spectacular display is by taking a drive on Skyline Parkway or enjoying a dinner at The Silos or JJ Astor’s restaurant. The views can’t be beat!

The Volunteers Who Make It Happen

Duluth is a great community to be a part of and one of the reasons is because of our neighbors, the great people who help make events like Bentleyville possible. 768 volunteers helped setup, run and dismantle Bentleyville for a total of 15,000 hours.

Each night between 25-60 volunteers are needed to help pass out hot cocoa and cookies. Rogentine says, “We take pride in how well our event has played out with the great response we have had with volunteers coming to help out and the flow of the crowds.”

Jill Dalbacka has been volunteering with a group of her friends for years. “We volunteer at the cookie house, six to eight of us at a time. It’s a great way for us to get together and to give back to the community,” she shares. Dalbacka, a former elementary school teacher in the Duluth School District says it’s a joy to see the children come through, including former students. This past year her granddaughter, a sixth grader from the Twin Cities, volunteered with her over Thanksgiving weekend. “She got to be one of the characters. When she got back to school in the cities, her friends didn’t believe her so I had to send pictures.”

Fraboni has been volunteering with her husband since 2009. “The organized process of putting the entire display together is monumental. The ‘Red Coat’ people are friendly and as supervisors, they make the volunteers feel welcome. Nathan always has a job for you and makes you feel good about what you are doing. Every season I would go back and learn to do more things, for example, how the tunnels are put together, how to string the lights over the tunnels and a myriad of other odd jobs,” Fraboni shares.

The Gift of Giving

Bentleyville is all about giving back to the community. Each day food and toy donations are collected at the entrance and are distributed to Salvation Army Corps in Duluth, Cloquet, Virginia, Grand Rapids, Hibbing, International Falls, MN, and Superior, WI. “Nathan does this from the heart, he wants to do it for the community,” shares Dalbacka.

Making Duluth Unique

Whether you are already a Duluthian or thinking about moving to the area, Bentleyville is just one of the events that shows what a great town we live in. The beauty of Lake Superior mingled with over four million lights, makes Duluth winter magical. Come and join us!

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