Chamberlain man's ingenuity with decorations have made central SD town filled with holiday spirit
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.
CHAMBERLAIN -- 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 filled Chamberlain with five creative, one-of-a-kind Christmas decorations through his ingenuity and skill.
“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 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. Among his 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.”
Chamberlain wanted to spruce up its downtown with a Christmas tree to supplement the decorations that the Sparkle Committee organized over the years. Donna Buche, a Chamberlain resident of 31 years, said the Sparkle Committee predates her, but the group’s goal has always been to bring community spirit to the holidays. And, in turn, if that helps boost the local economy by getting people to shop at local businesses when they were visiting the lights and decorations, even better.
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 all 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.”
Gina McManus has been a strong advocate of the decorations, showing their shine across social media and praising Kistler’s work. She’s proud of the effort the community she’s lived in since 2011 takes such a strong stance on Christmas, that it builds a feeling of togetherness. Not only does Kistler’s work stand out, she said, but the town has a drive-through tour called “Winter Wonderland” with lights and decorations at the American Creek Campground.
“If there’s something Chamberlain does well, it’s Christmas,” she said. “It seems like each year it gets better and better. That shows people here support the community.”
Kistler, 77, retired from full-time work in December 2019 but stayed on as a city employee part time, so the planning of this year’s angel began early. He’s heard compliments continuously about this year’s creation and it’s likely his favorite of the five he’s designed.
A group of volunteers, including Kistler’s wife and Buche, worked together to zip-tie 6,500 lights on the angel to make it really pop in the nighttime sky. The figure has detailed fingers holding a gold horn trumpeting into the air, long wings and endless sparkles tucked into its white paint.
It’s another decoration from a man who calls himself “just a farmer who knows how to weld.”
But to Chamberlain and Christmas, they’re all much more than that.
“Truly I feel,” Buche said, “no matter how your day is going, at the end of it, if you can go down Main Street or Winter Wonderland, there’s just something about the Christmas Spirit, it lifts you up. It’s important as a community. People come together over things like that, and I think they appreciate it. There’s nothing prettier than when it starts snowing and you see those decorations.
“Those decorations will last for years and years, and Jerry’s the pulse of it. He’s it. He’s the guy.”