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Esko attraction keeps holiday history going

Country Christmas display opens this weekend

For the seventh consecutive season, Lakehead Harvest Show is turning its Esko property into a holiday wonderland, with a new burst of lights from a beloved Duluth display.

Beginning Friday and for the next three weekends, there will be hayrides, Christmas lights and activities galore at the property located at 70 E. St. Louis River Road, roughly 8 miles northeast of Cloquet.

"It's a good way to spend time with family and an easy way to create memories," said Ryan Hansen, president of the club that operates the educational nonprofit organization aimed at keeping the area's agricultural history alive.

Hansen said the display draws a few thousand people every weekend with steadily increasing numbers across the years.

The hayrides through wooded trails feature light displays and run for the next three weekends - Dec. 1-3, 8-10 and 15-17.

Fridays hours are 6-8:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays hours expand to 2-8:30 p.m. Cost is $8 per person age 12 and older.

"It's a way to get together that's relatively inexpensive and different from the norm," Hansen said.

New this year is a walking path featuring a portion of Marcia Hales' former lighting displays from her cherished "Holiday Spirit in the Lights" walk-thru display. Hales' lighting exhibition on Park Point in Duluth was featured on network television and drew crowds for two decades before she retired.

"We're excited to get some of Marcia's displays," Hansen said. "It's local history what she did for 20 years."

Hales is excited too. She said she chose Lakehead because she received "a beautiful hand-delivered letter from the young man in charge" last winter, among the many requests people made for the lights. She is hoping to visit the trail sometime this winter.

She said the lights were a big part of her life. "I love it when people tell me they came to the lights at my house. It touches my heart."

Folks who travel the path will recognize some of the lighting displays: playful polar bears and a castle-like building among them.

The hayrides feature decorated hay wagons pulled by antique tractors. One is made to look like a train and coal tender, another like Santa's sleigh and reindeer.

"The drivers have fun decorating them," Hansen said. "We have five to nine different ones, depending on the day you go. You can go as many times as you want and many people take rides on every single one."

Hayrides along the half-mile wooded trail take roughly 15 minutes. There are also fire pits, a s'mores shack, a craft area where kids can make ornaments, and even a heated diner, where folks can get full meals for an additional $8.50 a plate. This weekend's menu will be roast beef and mashed potatoes with corn and a roll.

"We try to keep it affordable," Hansen said.

A centerpiece of the festivities can be found in Santa's cabin, where the jolly old elf himself is available for kids and families during all open hours.

Weather permitting, there will be a skating rink and ample locations throughout the property for selfies and family photo opportunities.

"There's something to do for everyone," Hansen said, adding that all of the activities are accessible to people with disabilities.

He recalled one young nonverbal girl in a wheelchair whose family spent four hours at the holiday exhibition.

"I will never forget her mother pushing her through the snow, running alongside her cousins," Hansen said. "She was screaming with joy and having a blast. We get stories like that every year."

Hansen, 38, is a pipefitter apprentice in Duluth, and was involved in his first tractor show at the property when he was 6 months old, an event memorialized in a family photograph. Hansen is the third generation of his family to be a part of the harvest show.

"I've known this place my whole life," he said. "It is near and dear to my heart."

More lights

• In addition to Esko's contribution to the holiday spirit, travelers and residents can visit Cloquet's Spafford Park Campground for its lighting display. The park, located in the Historic West End, features a drive- or walk-through lighting display. It includes numerous holiday images and even some others, such as dueling hockey players. The tour is free, and lit every afternoon after sundown.

• Created in Carlton County, Bentleyville celebrates 20 years this season at its permanent location at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth.

But Esko and Cloquet had it first. Nathan Bentley started decorating his home in Esko in 2001, adding more lights each year and becoming well-known as the family with the "house with all of the lights in Esko," according to the bentleyvilleusa.org website.

In 2003, Bentley changed his light display from a "drive by" to a "walkthrough," with Santa Claus visiting on weekends. He considers this the start of what we see today as Bentleyville.

In 2004 he and his family moved to rural Cloquet and Bentley ramped up his efforts even more. After two years and an estimated 35,000 visitors, neighbors were concerned about traffic, so Bentley created parking lots in nearby fields and hired nine school buses to transport visitors.

An estimated 72,000 visitors had Bentley looking for alternatives, and the move to Duluth was made. The now non profit organization and Bentleyville Tour of Lights turned on its millions of lights for guests for the first time in Duluth in 2009.

It's open through Dec. 26 from 5-9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday each week.

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