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Bentleyville founder lights up Cloquet, one display at a time

Several bins of light display donations from Nathan Bentley fill the back of a Cloquet City truck. The donations enable Cloquet to set up mini-displays around Veterans Park and Dunlap Island for families to either drive or walk through. Submitted photo1 / 2
The light displays are some of many donated by Nathan Bentley to Cloquet. Submitted photo2 / 2

Many of the Bentleyville light displays are coming full circle back home to rest in Cloquet.

Nathan Bentley, the namesake and creator of Bentleyville, continues to light up Cloquet by donating displays from his huge Bentleyville collection each year.

"It makes me feel nostalgic when I see the lights in Cloquet," Bentley said. "It brings back memories of the early days of Bentleyville."

It all started with a few yard decorations such as snowflakes at his Esko home on Highway 61, near St. Matthews Church in the early 2000s.

The Bentleys moved to the north side of Cloquet and kept decorating. They named the display Bentleyville in 2003. Each year, the display grew as did the crowds of admirers who stopped to look at the newest additions to the yard.

When Bentley realized he was busing in 72,000 people to see his expanding hobby, he decided to take off 2008 and re-evaluate the situation.

The city of Duluth offered to take in the budding event. Bentleyville is celebrating 10 seasons of lighting up the eyes of visitors as well as the display at Bayfront Park.

Bentley is still very active with the event that grew up with his children. He spends Sept. through January at Bentleyville, from setting it up to tearing it down and returning any borrowed supplies.

Bentley also transports prisoners to and from the event. He is excited about the program through the Federal Prison that he has been participating with for the last nine years. Early in the season the prisoners split wood for bonfires that has been donated by SAPPI paper and pulp mill in Cloquet and Verso Corporation in Duluth. Once it gets closer, the prisoners help set up and decorate the event and shovel snow when necessary.

"They do whatever needs doing," Bentley said.

Bentley also sings the praises of the crew of volunteers who help set up and run the event each year.

"They are a great group of people," Bentley said. He added that a handful of them have been helping since the event was held at his home.

Bentley's four children ages 18-26 help with the event every year. Two have moved away, but still come back on weekends to help out.

The little yard display now has a $500,000 yearly budget, with $150,000 spent on the display and $30,000-$40,000 going toward string lights. There are 14 semi-trucks to transport the displays to and from the event as well as 12 40 foot shipping containers to store everything.

Bentleyville has four parking lot and 12 shuttle buses to transport visitors.

With the help of sponsors, Bentley recently purchased half-million cookies which sits on nine pallets. He also purchased 25,000 new winter hats and bags of cookies for Santa Claus to give each child age 10 and under who visits him during the event.

About 15,000 pounds of powdered hot chocolate helps warm up the approximately 330,000 guests who travel each year to see the popular destination next to Lake Superior.

"I try hard to make the best possible experience for people as well as the largest free light event in the U.S.," Bentley said. "I plan to continue as long as I have the support of the community."

The light display will be turned on in Cloquet on Thanksgiving Day.

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