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Jenna Kowaleski column: It's time for Bentleyville

When I heard about Bentleyville, I knew I had to go. Not only did it sound fun, but it was free, which was a primary qualification for choosing most activities in those days. My partner and I made a date.

two people stand in front of Christmas lights display
Guests of Bentleyville founder Nathan Bentley look at the area where Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus would be stationed at the 2020 display in Bayfront Festival Park.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune
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I know that many of us still have piles of trick-or-treating candy stashed on top of the refrigerator and are swiftly turning the dial the second a Christmas song sneaks onto the radio. But this month is the month Bentleyville opens and I can’t help but get excited. Don’t be mad at me; I don’t make the rules. I just enjoy them.

Jenna Kowaleski
Jenna Kowaleski

It was late 2011 and things had just started going my way. But, up to then, things hadn’t been going my way for a while. Graduating college into a recession, life had gotten real hard really quickly. But in 2011 I’d set a new course: I’d moved to Duluth, I had a direction, a job and the love of my life. It was a point when everything was starting to look like things might turn out OK. Maybe. Or maybe they’d all fall apart again.

It was my first winter in Duluth, which meant that I was a little caught off-guard by the parade in the middle of November, but, overall, I enjoyed watching the city light up as the days became shorter and darker. When I heard about Bentleyville, I knew I had to go. Not only did it sound fun, but it was free, which was a primary qualification for choosing most activities in those days. My partner and I made a date.

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Lights on one of the drive-through tunnels at Bentleyville in 2020.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

Walking in through the tunnel of lights that connect the parking lot with the park itself, I immediately felt a huge holiday hug. At the entrance, I couldn’t believe when they gave us hot chocolate and cookies for free, but we took them and started our walk around the park. We meandered through the continuous tunnels of lights, admiring the sparkling displays, smiling at the cute characters, and laughing at the silly scenes from our favorite Christmas movies, reenacted entirely in lights.

When we were halfway through, we stopped to take in the massive tree in the middle of the park.

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Bentleyville Tour of Lights Sue Slattery of Duluth an elf hands out winter hats and cookies to children who visited Santa Claus at the holiday display. Slattery has played a penguin; Frosty’s girlfriend, Crystal; Mrs. Claus at Bentleyville. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com
Sue Slattery, of Duluth, hands out winter hats and cookies to children who visited Santa Claus at Bentleyville in 2019.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

We munched on popcorn as the lights on the towering tree twinkled. Then, a song from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra came on, one of my favorites, and the lights on the tree started to dance in time to the music. I hadn’t seen anything so cool in a long, long time. I stood there, mesmerized, glowing from the inside out. I held my partner’s hand and pointed and exclaimed every time the tree changed color with the beat of the music, like a kid watching fireworks.

A volunteer came up to us and asked us if we wanted to see the inside of the tree. The answer to that question is always, “Yes!” The inside of the tree looked like an infinity of lights stretching forever into space. It was amazing. I held my partner’s hand again. And, for the first time in years, everything felt like it would, in fact, be OK.

For the first time since leaving for college years before, I felt like I’d found a home. In Duluth.

“Santa’s not going to pull any pranks," Brad Vanderbrook, who plays the Grinch at Bentleyville, said. "I get to pull pranks.”

I saw in that moment that, though life could be hard, there would also be a lot of joy. I could see all the people who’d come together to create this amazing experience. To paint the dark sky with light. Up to that point, it had been too easy to only see the cold and darkness of night, but I was reminded of the kindness of others. I could see the good, towering over me in a twisting tower of shimmering lights.

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Bentleyville won first place in USA Today's "10Best" contest in 2017.
File / Duluth News Tribune

It's been over a decade, but every year I still love going to Bentleyville. Sure, there’s the crowds and parking can be a pain, but it’s an incredible community event that people build together every year when it’s dark and freezing outside to make the sky twinkle in time to Christmas songs. Though I’ve never been to Bentleyville when it’s been above 30 degrees, I’ve always felt warm. It resets my optimism for the next year. It re-expands my tiny Grinchy heart.

Bentleyville is an incredible community gift. So, if you haven’t gone, go. (And bring a donation for the food or toy drive). If you have gone, go again. And to those who pour countless hours and resources into making it a reality, thank you. Your community appreciates you more than you know.

Jenna has lived, hiked and written in the Duluth Hillside for a decade. Find more of her scribblings at jmackenziewrites.wordpress.com .

Related Topics: DULUTH
Jenna Kowaleski, of Duluth, is a freelance Lifestyle columnist for the Duluth News Tribune.
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