DULUTH, Minn. (WCCO) — At this time of year, the skyline of Duluth is much brighter at night. Nearly 4 million lights are glowing nearby in Bayfront Festival Park along Lake Superior.
Bentleyville, as it’s called, is the largest holiday light display in the Midwest and it’s absolutely free. It’s a walk-through dreamland in an eight-acre park, and it may be the largest free display of its kind in the country.
“We certainly know for a fact that we have the largest manmade tree in the United States, standing at 128 feet tall with 50,000 LED lights, weighing 17 tons of steel,” said Nathan Bentley, founder of the non-profit group that operates the display.
Bentleyville came from the imagination of someone who didn’t grow up with much but appreciated what he had.
Nathan Bentley remembers growing up in a lower-middle class neighborhood and the Christmas drives in his family’s station wagon, checking out the lights around Duluth.
“We’d ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ inside the car, roll down the window and there’d be a few other cars behind us,” he said.
As an adult, Bentley has found success in screen printing and embroidery. His company, Advantage Emblem, sells about 200,000 patches a week to girl scouts, government agencies and security companies among others.
“We like to do things over the top,” Bentley said.
That was his approach to Christmas — over the top — as many of these decorations started going up at his home, first in Esko and then later in Cloquet when his family moved to a larger home.
Buses, vans and probably a few station wagons started filling his neighborhood.
“People just started coming and coming and coming,” said Bentley, “and the neighbors started getting more upset.”
Now, to keep the peace, those decorations are in a city park just off Interstate 35, with many more light displays added. Sponsors and donors now help Bentley treat the community. Bentleyville is funded entirely by donations and corporate sponsors. No tax money is involved.
“We have free coffee, free hot chocolate, free cookies, free popcorn. If it’s not free, it’s not Bentleyville.”
The lights may never have been quite this epic when Nathan Bentley was a child, but thanks to hard work and a giving spirit, they are now for his neighbors.
“So often, I think this world is just about take, take, take. I truly believe in giving, all year round,” Bentley said.
Visitors are encouraged to bring toys and non-perishable food items for the Salvation Army.
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