Bentleyville's history, people, finances, and special moments behind the 5-million lights 

Dennis O'Hara
Bentleyville is open nightly (including holidays) from November 19 - December 26. 
More than 50% of the displays are new for 2022, including the gigantic "Grand Castle" entrance

The Bentleyville tour of lights has been an amazing triumph for Duluth.

The annual, walk-through holiday light display - featuring over five million lights, live characters, refreshments, and a large variety of themed displays - typically welcomes an astonishing 300,000+ visitors per year. While many are local residents, others come from far and wide to visit Bentleyville. In fact, Visit Duluth estimates that the event provides between $21-22 million in annual economic impact.

But, beyond the astounding influx of tourism and cash for the local economy, Bentleyville is also doing great things for the community. Each year, the event collects and distributes thousands of pounds of food, and thousands of children’s toys, for the less fortunate. Nineteen years after its inception, Bentleyville remains free to the public, as it has since day one. Bentleyville has free admission for all guests, as well as free hot cocoa & coffee, free cookies, free freshly popped popcorn, free marshmallows to roast, and free visits with Santa & Mrs. Claus!

“As long as I’m at the helm, it will always be free,” said founder/creator/namesake, Nathan Bentley. “That’s part of the uniqueness of it all. A lot of people don’t have extra disposable income – especially at that time of year.”

Please Note: Parking is $10 per vehicle near the attraction, but if you're willing to hike a little, free street parking is available downtown after 5:30 pm.

Nathan Bentley

Nathan Bentley, the founder, mastermind and "Mayor of Bentleyville." Photo submitted.

Nathan Bentley is first and foremost a businessman. He has owned Advantage Emblem, a screen printing and embroidery business, since the age of 18.

But he also has a heart of gold and enjoys doing acts of service to help others. In addition to creating and maintaining Bentleyville, he spends four months of every year in Laos. Here, he helps renovate schools and installs infrastructure like roads and lighting.

Bentley and his wife, Tricia, have been married for 32 years, and have four adult kids: Aryanah (28), Austin (26), Abbey (24), and Alex (22). The family has also grown to include a grandson, Zion (2). The Bentley family also includes three “Doodle” dogs: a Sheepadoodle, a Goldendoodle, and a Mini Bernedoodle.

A 1000' ship navigates under the Aerial Lift Bridge passing by Bentleyville. - Photo by Dennis O'Hara.

History

Bentley explained a little about how Bentleyville began. “It was a complete accident,” he noted with a chuckle. “It wasn’t built on purpose. I was just trying to put up more lights than my neighbor had.”

The holiday display celebrated its first year at the Bentley family home in Esko, in 2001. When the family moved to Cloquet, Bentleyville did, too. It remained there for the next four years.

As the number of lights and displays grew, people took notice. “One of my employees facetiously called it ‘Bentleyville,’ as a jab. Kind of like Whoville,” Bentley explained.

Bentley leaned into the joke, and ultimately embraced it. He put up a Bentleyville banner, and added apple cider and cookies - and the people just kept coming.

“Eventually, people started putting $1s and $5s under the Christmas tree I had by my shed to help contribute,” Bentley said. “I like to say it was organically grown.”

The Giant Castle entrance seen in this photo is being replaced this year with a new 74' wide x 24' tall entrance. Photo by Dennis O'Hara.

A Big Move

In 2008, former Duluth mayor Don Ness approached Bentley about relocating the display to Bayfront Festival Park. Bentley’s response? “Sure, we’ll try it.”

The event took a year off in 2009, while Bentleyville and City leadership focused on planning for the future. Power, infrastructure, and parking, among other topics, had to be figured out.

The event roared back, bigger than ever, in 2010 and now is America's largest free walk-through holiday display.

Budget

Bentleyville has come a long way from its modest beginnings in Esko. The event now has an annual budget of $800,000, which includes:

  • $200,000 for new lights and displays
  • $60,000 for stocking caps, which are free for children
  • $45,000 for cookies, hot cocoa, and popcorn, which are free for guests, at the Cookie House
  • $15,000 for restroom facilities
  • $8,000 for cookies given out by Santa
  • $9,000 for power bills

Other significant expenses include snow removal, equipment rentals, zip ties, trucking costs, insurance, costumes, and infrastructure.

Bentley noted that as part of the agreement for the move, the City of Duluth pays for Bentleyville’s power bills. Bentley unfortunately gets some flak from the community about this expense. His response? “That money comes from tourism, and it’s a very small portion of our budget. We spend more in zip ties than we do on the power bill.”

Funding

Bentleyville is a 501(c)(3) non-profit entity; as such, funding comes from a variety of sources.

Bell Bank, along with a variety of other corporate sponsors, helps pay the bills. There are also annual fundraising events, like the Chip in Fore Bentleyville golf scramble and a candy bar sale. Funding is rounded out by donations, parking lot revenue (parking in a nearby lot costs $10), and retail revenue from the Bentleyville gift shop.

For those who want to contribute, financial donations are always welcomed and accepted. People are also encouraged to bring non-perishable food items and new, unwrapped toys for kids and teens. These items are donated to, and distributed by, the Salvation Army, and shared with seven regional locations.

There are free cookies, cocoa, popcorn and marshmallows for roasting over the fire pits. In addition, children 10 and under who visit Santa will receive a free stocking cap. Photo by Dennis O'Hara

Volunteers NEEDED!

It takes a giant team to host Bentleyville every year. Volunteers are needed nightly for the Marshmallow Hut, Popcorn Box, Fire Pits, Cookie House and Greeters. Learn more about volunteering and sign up by clicking here

At the top of the volunteer list is Nathan Bentley who is is accompanied by his long-time assistant, Tim Rogentine.

Volunteers also include an 11-person Executive Board of Directors, who meet monthly to discuss budgets, contracts, and other high-level items. The Operations Committee (also called “Red Coat Staff”) consists of 30 people who coordinate all details, and work as hands-on decision makers for the event.

There is a 7-person sewing group, who make costumes for the live characters at Bentleyville, including Santa, Mrs. Claus, reindeer, penguins, snowmen, and more.

A group of four welding volunteers provide the welding and repairs for all the steel and aluminum displays. The Ironworkers Local #512 also volunteer to handle the set-up and take-down of displays and the enormous metal Christmas tree every year.

And, a local artist, Barry Pirkola, creates drawings and renderings of new displays every year. Bentley sends these drawings to his contacts in Southeast Asia, where the new displays are manufactured.

The Aerial Lift Bridge is the backdrop of many displays at Bentleyville. Photo by Dennis O'Hara

What’s New?

This year will bring some exciting new changes to Bentleyville. “This will be the first year that between 50-60% of our displays are new,” Bentley said. “We really wanted to do an overhaul.”

A huge, new gift shop will be added this year, too, with plenty of Bentleyville merch available for purchase. Previously, the gift shop was 800 square feet; this year, it will be 4,000 square feet.

And, the grand entrance castle display is being replaced this year. It is a custom-made, 72’ long, 24’ high behemoth, welcoming guests to Bentleyville.

With next year being a milestone anniversary, big changes are coming to 2023, too. “We try to make things fresh for photo opportunities every year,” Bentley said. “But with next year being our 20th anniversary, we have big plans.”

Special Memories

Over the years, Bentley has witnessed some amazing memories being made. “People have had their first date there and gotten engaged there,” he shared.

“Couples have even gotten married there,” he added. “In fact, we host between 3-4 weddings a year.

“People also name their kids and dogs after Bentleyville! It’s really fun that the next generation is also bringing their kids. I enjoy seeing the smiles on everyone’s faces, and just watching them have a good time.”

Schedule

Bentleyville Tour of Lights opens Saturday, November 19th, and runs through Monday, December 26th. The event is open from 5-9 PM Sundays - Thursdays, and 5-10 PM on Fridays and Saturdays.

There will be fireworks on opening night, and Santa and Mrs. Claus are planning to continue their annual tradition of skydiving in to kick things off.

For more information, go to BentleyvilleUSA.org

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