In 2001 Nathan Bentley first started decorating his home in Esko, MN for the Christmas season. For the next two years he continually added more lights to create a larger holiday light display; his home quickly became known as the “House with all of the lights in Esko.”
In 2003 Nathan ran out of room in his front yard for Christmas decorations, so he started adding them to his backyard turning his light display from a “drive by” Christmas light display to a “walk through” light display. Santa Claus started to visit on weekends allowing children to visit with him while sitting in his very own life size sleigh.
The larger it grew, the more help he needed to set up his display. Since Nathan was going overboard a friend sarcastically started to call it Bentleyville (referencing Dr. Suess’s town of Whoville). The name caught on with visitors and “Bentleyville Tour of Lights” was born. This same year live entertainment was added on the weekends with the creation of “Elfis” (half Elvis / half elf) played by Barry Pirkola, a local musician.
During the summer of 2004, Nathan and his family moved from Esko, MN to rural Cloquet, MN to a larger home for their 4 children. With the new name of “Bentleyville” came a whole new vision for Nathan. To entice people to drive out into the country a larger and grander Christmas light display was being built. A 78’ x 24’ high entrance castle made of 45,000 lights was built to greet visitors. Over 500 illuminated snowflakes hung from trees on his wooded property. Dozens of light displays were created and new ones added each year. Live entertainment was added featuring area school groups and community musicians. Fire pits were added for people to gather around and roast marshmallows. Santa Claus was now a permanent guest every night at Bentleyville visiting with children and handing out a free winter hat and bag of cookies to all the young children visiting with Santa.
A “Cookie House” was built offering free cookies, coffee and apple cider to everyone visiting Bentleyville. All the walking paths were paved allowing it to be fully handicapped accessible. A Popcorn building was built to hand out free popcorn to the people as they strolled through the light show. A food and toy drive was started to collect items for the Salvation Army in Carlton County.
As the popularity of Bentleyville grew quickly so did traffic problems with the very limited parking available on a dead end country dirt road. The neighbors soon began to express their concerns that something needed to be done about the increased traffic congestion. After just two years and an estimated 35,000 people visiting, Nathan decided the only way to solve the traffic concerns was to build parking lots in nearby horse fields owned by area neighbors. Visitors would be bussed in by hiring nine 72 passenger school busses to transport visitors from two parking fields to the entrance of Bentleyville.
After just 4 years of hosting Bentleyville at his residence and transporting over 72,000 people by school bus, in 2008 Nathan thought it was a good time to take a year off and re-think how everything was working.
In the fall of 2008 Nathan received a phone call from Duluth City Mayor Don Ness’s Office inviting him to a meeting to discuss an invitation to host Bentleyville Tour of Lights at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth, MN. Nathan thought the new location would be a good fit for Bentleyville and accepted the one year trial invitation.
For the next year planning for the large undertaking of moving Bentleyville to a venue 4 times the size of his residence was underway. Nathan selected a Board of Directors, formed a 501c3 non profit organization, asked his original Bentleyville team of 25 people to help organize and plan for a Christmas light show in need of over 600 volunteers over 37 days, taking over 10 weeks to set up the massive light show in Bayfront Festival Park.
The excitement of Bentleyville moving to Bayfront Park grew and so did the support of area businesses that wanted the light show in Duluth in hopes of drawing people downtown in the cold and snowy months of November and December. From October 1 – November 26, 2009 hundreds of volunteers and thousands of hours were put into building Bentleyville.
On Friday November 27, 2009 Bentleyville Tour of Lights turned on its millions of lights to thousands of onlookers for the first time at Bayfront Park in downtown Duluth. For the next 6 weeks over 150,000 people visited Bentleyville enjoying the sounds and lights of Christmas.
The following three years Bentleyville continued to grow in size. We added a number of new displays and our visitor tally continued to increase; we had over 206,000 visitors in 2012!
On December 19th, 2012, Bentleyville announced that it had made a commitment to return to Bayfront Park for at least the next 3 years. Each year adding new light displays and a fresh new look encouraging people of all ages to come visit the largest Christmas light show in the upper Midwest: Bentleyville, a free family event for all to enjoy.