DULUTH — As Nathan Bentley strolls down an asphalt path along Lake Superior on a windy October morning, he is greeted with waves, jokes and questions. As the stitching on his red baseball cap declares, the 50-year-old is the unofficial mayor of the merry, magical 20-acre place that bears his name.
Bentleyville doesn’t have its own ZIP code, but it’s almost like its own little municipality, one that pops up each September and disappears within the first weeks of the new year.
Starting Saturday and until Dec. 28, hundreds of thousands of visitors will flock to Duluth’s Bayfront Festival Park for the Bentleyville Tour of Lights. More than 5 million lights are strung together to create this temporary town, which organizers say is the largest free light show of its kind in the country.
Trips to Bentleyville have become holiday rituals for families, friends and couples. They come for Santa, for the dazzling light displays, for free hot chocolate, for Christmas cheer and camaraderie shared around bonfires.
This will be the 11th year Duluth has hosted the event, which is a $750,000 operation these days. Hundreds pitch in to help with the annual setup, but the bulk of the work is done by Bentley and a group of 30 or so core volunteers.
On that October morning, Bentley paused to check in with Bill Gordon, who was hanging icicle lights from the poles forming the lakeside path.
“I’m not sure if Bill knew what he was getting into when he showed up here 10 years ago,” Bentley said, shooting a quick teasing smile at his friend.
Gordon and his wife saw an ad in the paper in 2009 asking for help. He thought they’d spend a few hours lending a hand with setup. Now they spend most Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesday evenings in the fall at the Bayfront Park gearing up for the big event.
“We just fell in love with it,” he said. “You feel pretty lucky that you’re a part of it.”
A hobby gone wild
Bentleyville’s humbler roots lie not far away in Esko, where in 2001 Bentley decked out his house for the holidays to try to outdo the neighbor. By 2003, he was letting visitors do walk-through tours of his property, and Santa stopped by on the weekends.
The following summer, Bentley and his family moved to a rural part of Cloquet, where he had room to expand his Christmas extravaganza. He added new light displays, bonfire pits and a cookie house, where guests could stop for free snacks or cider. Santa started visiting every night.
Bentleyville grew overwhelmingly popular. Nine school buses would transport people to Bentley’s house from a nearby field where they could park their cars. With an estimated 72,000 annual visitors coming to his property, traffic became too much to manage, and Bentley decided to take a break in 2008.
He got a call from then-Duluth Mayor Don Ness, who asked if Bentley would be interested in using the city’s Bayfront Park for his displays. Bentley said yes, formed an official nonprofit to support the endeavor and started planning for the next year.
“It began as a hobby,” Bentley said. “It’s just grown to be a bit more than that.”
Over time, Bentley has recruited friends and strangers to join his band of “Red Coats.” That’s what he calls the cohort that consistently comes to help set up and run Bentleyville. They all wear matching custom-made winter jackets the color of Rudolph’s nose.
Mary Towers works for Bentley’s company, Advantage Emblem & Screen Printing. She got roped into helping her boss with his holiday hobby back when Bentleyville was in Cloquet.
Now, Towers is the volunteer coordinator for the entire event. For months, she’s done loads of laundry during her workday at Advantage to get all the costumes ready for opening night. Once things kick off, Towers will be at Bentleyville five nights a week, often not getting back to her Proctor home until 10:30 p.m. or later.
On setup weekends, local restaurants take turns donating food for the Bentleyville volunteers, the Red Coats and groups that might just be lending a hand for a day. On a November Saturday, Towers unwrapped trays of chicken strips and kettle chips and greeted workers as they came in from the cold and squeezed around long folding tables in Bayfront Park’s warming house.
“We’re all a little addicted,” she joked. “But can you blame us? Who doesn’t like Christmas?”
‘We’re like a big family’
Bart Floyd of Two Harbors asked Towers what Bentleyville was after he saw the name on her shirt at church years ago. Thanks to that moment of curiosity, he spent half of this summer and all fall zip-tying thousands of Christmas lights to chicken-wire panels to illuminate Bentleyville’s 12-story tree.
“But it doesn’t feel like we’re working,” Floyd said. “We’re like a big family.”
Bentleyville stays open on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, so many of the volunteers are used to celebrating holidays with one another — even the ones that don’t happen during the event. Bentley has invited the group Up North to his cabin for the Fourth of July.
“There can definitely be some Christmas talk in the summer,” Diana Kiesow said. She and her husband, Kevin, live in Stillwater but spend a lot of nights at their cabin in the area this time of year to set up for Bentleyville — something they started doing after a chance run-in with Bentley when they were guests at the event.
The motley crew of volunteers has seen some of its youngest members grow up. Turk Aanonsen, who also works at Advantage, has been helping with the event since it was at Bentley’s house in Cloquet. Now, his 19-year-old son Lukas is beside him, climbing ladders to secure the lights on some of the taller displays. Both father and son help with parking during the event.
“This has been a big part of my Christmas for forever,” Lukas Aanonsen said. “It’s special for me and my family.”
Wednesday night was a dress rehearsal of sorts. The 5 million lights were glowing, the free hats and cookies sat ready in boxes for the children who come to visit Santa. The park was empty except for the volunteers buzzing around making last-minute checks.
Come Saturday night, thousands will flood the area for Bentleyville’s dramatic opening, when the lights burst on, the Christmas tunes blare and Santa sky-dives into the park.
“The kids’ eyes turn into saucers,” said Tim Rogentine, Bentleyville’s event coordinator. “There’s really nothing like it.”