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Northlandia: Spooky Halloween display makes detour more fun

Among Troy McKinley's decor are skeletons riding a snowmobile, a rowboat and an ambulance he's converting into a camper. A detour on North Shore Drive takes motorists past his Ryan Road house.

Halloween decorations.
Skeletons hang out in Troy McKinley’s front yard Sunday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Troy McKinley knew he wanted to do something unique for Halloween. St. Louis County recently began emergency repairs to North Shore Drive. The detour sent traffic right past his house.

"We knew it'd be a lot more traffic on Ryan Road here, so we wanted to do something fun," McKinley said.

Postcard aerial scene of Duluth
This is Northlandia: a place to bring your curiosity, because you will find curiosities. In this series, the News Tribune celebrates the region's distinctive people, places and history.
Adelie Bergstrom / Duluth News Tribune

He decided it was time to set up his ambulance again. Two years ago, he bought his house and noticed that the North Shore Scenic Railroad went right past his yard.

"And they've got that 100-year-old train bridge that they slow down to cross," he said. "So I thought I'd give them something more to look at."

He'd bought a former ambulance from the Two Harbors Ambulance Service auction. So he went to Menards and picked up a couple skeletons to put inside.

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Halloween decorations.
In addition to a skeleton in the driver’s seat Troy McKinley’s ambulance is decorated with the undead Sunday. McKinely is a Coast Guard veteran.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

"The train engineers seemed to get a kick out of it," McKinley said.

This year, McKinley set up the ambulance again, but decided to add in more skeletons doing various things: one is bench-pressing two pumpkins, another is riding a snowmobile, two are in a small rowboat, a few operated his backhoe.

The glimmering rocks, hundreds of millions of years in the making, can hold a special place in Duluth-area hearts.

"Actually, I need that backhoe for a project, so I'll have to take them out for a few days," McKinley said. "We kind of change it up as I need things. I had my dump truck set up out there with a bunch of them crawling up inside the back of it. It's always changing."
McKinley plans to keep the decorations up until at least Halloween, though he might have to pull them in soon after due to travel plans.

Once he's done displaying the ambulance, McKinley will get back to his original plans for it: converting it into a camper.

Halloween decorations.
A skeleton operates Troy McKinley’s backhoe Sunday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

"They ride like a Lincoln and they're very safe and easy to wire up to turn them into a camper," he said. "And they make great campers, especially if you're 5-foot-6. They stand at about 5-foot-6 and a half, so it's perfect for me and my 5-foot-3 wife."

He's added a refrigerator and adapted some of the wiring, but has really focused on adapting the outside of it to reflect his personality. He added a naked mermaid to the hood to signify his time he served in the U.S. Coast Guard and added a few decals to the back of the ambulance inspired by the TV show "The Walking Dead." They read "Don't open, dead inside" with life-size zombies.

This is the fourth former ambulance that McKinley has owned. He started using two as work trucks when he worked in the oil fields in North Dakota.

"I was doing maintenance on the semi-trucks out there, so I was changing oil and tires and air filters on the spot out there, so I needed the space," McKinley said. "I called myself 'Rescue Lube' and it worked out pretty well."

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Skeletons 2
A motorist on Ryan Road passes Troy McKinley’s Halloween decorations Sunday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Another time an ambulance came in handy was when he and his wife first moved to Duluth. The house was previously owned by a hoarder. He ended up hauling loads of items to charity shops and dump trucks full of scrap metal to the landfill.

Timberlake Lodge has become the site of an annual pilgrimage for Minnesotans who are on the trail of Sasquatch. Numbering in the hundreds, Minnesota Bigfoot Conference attendees are convinced that giant bipeds are afoot in the Northland, just out of sight.

"It was a really long process, but we eventually made it through and now it's miles better than it was before," McKinley said. "Neighbors have stopped by to say, 'Hey, thanks for cleaning up the place.'"

Speaking of neighbors, what do they think of his Halloween skeletal display?

"They definitely are quirky neighbors," said Kimberly Sturtz, pastor at French River Lutheran, located next door to McKinley. "And it's always interesting to see what they put up for a holiday."

Teri Cadeau is a general assignment and neighborhood reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Originally from the Iron Range, Cadeau has worked for several community newspapers in the Duluth area for eight years including: The Duluth Budgeteer News, Western Weekly, Weekly Observer, Lake County News-Chronicle and occasionally, the Cloquet Pine Journal. When not working, she's an avid reader and crafter.
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