CHAMBERLAIN, S.D. — Jerry Kistler thought the world needed an angel in 2020, so he built one.
The beautiful, hand-crafted figure stands proudly along the Missouri River in Chamberlain looking south down the town’s festive Main Street.
It’s no white Christmas in central South Dakota, but this angel provides plenty of brightness and is another example of Kistler’s craftsmanship, for he has provided Chamberlain with five creative, one-of-a-kind Christmas decorations.
“I’m not an artist,” he humbly says. “Farmer’s art, maybe.”
Beginning the day after Thanksgiving each year, a drive through Chamberlain is the spark that ignites the holiday spirit. Much of that is because of Kistler, and in true Christmas fashion the story begins with a tree.
In 2013, the city of Chamberlain and its volunteer group known as the “Sparkle Committee” decided it needed more flair to go with its white snowflakes that hang on light poles throughout town.
“Can you make a tree, Jerry?” he was asked.
There’s good reason Kistler was the go-to for the project. After 33 years of farming and ranching outside of his hometown of Reliance, he moved to Chamberlain in 1996 with his wife, Lorna.
Kistler, 77, started as a city employee in 2000 and eventually was promoted to street superintendent and held that job for 16 years. Manual labor switched from rural to city life by plowing snow, building and fixing whatever needed fixes. Notable projects he assisted with in the community include the rebuilding of Cedar Shore Resort in Oacoma, and leading the creation of the concrete handicap fishing pier that sticks out into the river near American Creek Campground.
“As far as his skill, I don’t think there’s anyone in this area who can weld, design and create something like he does,” said Greg Powell, Chamberlain’s city engineer. “He’s built so much stuff that will last well beyond his and my lifetime.”
So back to the tree. It took him about three weeks to complete by hand-bending iron, welding, fastening and piecing it together. Powell said Kistler basically built it “out of scraps.”
“I think there’s even a tire rim that’s up toward the top of it,” Powell said.
And when one’s a success, why not another decoration creation? In 2014, he made tall, red candles with detailed red flames. Kistler doesn’t use blueprints or even any sort of a mockup. He sort-of designs the decoration from a picture — others help paint and display them on Main Street when it’s time, but Kistler’s the architect.
In 2015, when his crew was tearing apart an old jungle gym set in town, Kistler thought it would be a great round base for a snowman. That’s the story of the 18-foot tall snowman, built in two pieces to be stacked on top of each other.
“It’s all kind of evolved from one thing to another,” Kistler said, recalling all the projects.
The tree, the candles, the snowman and even the large Santa Claus, built in 2017, are all covered in shiny garland. Worried Santa could tip over in South Dakota’s sometimes wicked wind, Kistler used heavy I-beams for legs and painted some barrels black for boots.
“The boots came to me at about 3:30 in the morning,” he said. “I was wondering how the hell I was going to make those boots.”
The construction of Santa took about 120 hours, he said. It wasn’t quite good enough the first go-round, so he improved the face after its initial year of display. Just a nod to Kistler’s perfectionism.
Each decoration comes out fantastic, of course, because his wife is his biggest critic, Powell says. And when your wife is your biggest critic, nothing’s perfect — until it’s perfect.
Not only are the decorations unique, but they’re also valuable. Santa is insured by the city for $50,000. The candles, $25,000.
“His talent is amazing,” Powell said. “He’s blessed with a skill, and it comes just so natural to him. You couldn’t buy these for those prices.”