Coming from a man who says he doesn’t have a favorite holiday, it’s hard to imagine Nathan Bentley not choosing Christmas.
A 45-year-old Hibbing native, Bentley has become a well-known name in the Duluth and Northland communities.
Bentley created a walk-through Christmas light show that is one of the biggest light shows in the Midwest. Bentleyville has even been ranked in the “50 Best Places To See Christmas Lights in America.”
“Bentleyville wasn’t planned; it was evolved,” Bentley said. “I just go overboard on things.”
Before Bentleyville was truly evolved, Bentley had a light show in his yard in Esko. When Bentley, his wife and four children moved to Cloquet, the light show moved as well.
Moving out to the country in Cloquet increased the number of lights he had and also increased the number of visitors.
“The neighbors called the county because of the congestion on the road,” Bentley said.
Because of limited parking, lights enthusiasts parked in fields and were transported to Bentley’s home via school buses he rented. In five years, more than 72,000 people are estimated to have bused to the light show.
The popularity of Bentleyville sparked an interest with Duluth Mayor Don Ness, who called Bentley and extended an invitation to move Bentleyville from Cloquet to Bayfront Festival Park.
Previous to Bentleyville’s move into the city of Duluth, Bayfront Festival Park had a small light show that wasn’t attended by many.
“It was kind of a pathetic light display in Bayfront,” Ness said.
After hearing about the conflict Bentley was facing and the lack of interest in the light show at Bayfront at the time, Ness wondered if somehow the city and Bentley could join forces.
“It was an honor to be asked,” Bentley said.
This holiday season marks Bentley’s sixth in Bayfront and 11th overall.
“Nathan has a big heart. He’s generous, and has a strong mind to pull off this event,” said Ness. “He’s driven by bringing joy to people’s lives.”
Bentleyville cannot be produced easily by one man alone, so volunteers are a major part of the production each year — especially to help string Bentleyville’s 3.5 million lights.
“It’s a struggle every fall to get it set up. It’s stressful,” Bentley said. “I get frustrated, but once it’s open and people are thanking me, it makes it worth its while.”
Bentley can be spotted hanging around Bentleyville every day and night, talking to families walking through the light show.
“When others are spending time with their families at Thanksgiving and Christmas, I’m there,” Bentley said.
One of the biggest aspects and enticements of Bentleyville is that it’s free.
“I’ve never thought about charging for admission. It’s unique. As long as I’m doing it, it will be free,” Bentley said.
While Bentleyville may be free, it isn’t cheap to produce each year. Bentley said the estimated $500,000 price tag is at least partially offset by revenue from donation boxes located throughout the park.
“People will walk through and drop a few ones, or a five, or a ten,” Bentley said.
Fundraising and donations are also important aspects of keeping Bentleyville running each year.
“Area businesses sponsor us,” Bentley said. The sponsors who give the most are called “Santa Sponsors,” and those who give less are called “Elf Sponsors.”
Bentleyville doesn’t just take monetary donations from area businesses. It also accepts donations as simple as lighter fluid and wood for the many fire pits where families warm up and roast marshmallows (which by the way, is one of the mayor’s favorite parts of Bentleyville).
Bentleyville opened Saturday Nov. 22 and will run through Dec. 27 — 5-9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
From a man who didn’t have much of a vision when he started creating this tour of lights to one of the biggest light tours in the country, Bentleyville has become a tradition for many families to tour each year. That’s something that makes Bentley proud.
“I feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when I see everyone having fun,” he said.
Editor's note: This story was updated on Nov. 25 to include additional information from Duluth Mayor Don Ness.