A box of tissues has been thoughtfully placed on the second floor of the Redlin Art Center in Watertown, S.D. I didn’t think I’d need it when arriving at the brick and columned building perched on a hillside off Interstate 29. The museum beckons travelers with free admission and an expansive collection of wildlife painter Terry Redlin’s work, which has graced Boy Scout popcorn tins, calendars, puzzles, wine bottles and the walls of wildlife art stores. His familiar style — homey subjects, warm tones and glowing light — has been dubbed “romantic realism,” but even if you arrive slightly jaded, Redlin’s personal story and the stories that his artworks tell tug at the heartstrings.
Hence the tissues. A streaming video shows Redlin talking about his “An American Portrait: A Collection of Heartfelt Firsts.” It depicts milestones such as a boy’s first friend (a puppy), his first day of school, his first date and moving to college, all rich in detail. In the final scene, “His Last Goodbye,” military officers stand on the front steps of a house decorated for the holidays, delivering the news that the son will not be coming home again.
Visitors also cluster in front of a video on Redlin’s “America the Beautiful” series, which depicts scenes from the settling of America set against coast-to-coast landscapes inspired by the song.
Watertown native Redlin, 77, donated the museum and his collection of 160 original paintings to South Dakota, which gave him an art-school scholarship when a motorcycle accident at age 15 derailed his plans to work in forestry. He spent much of his career as an illustrator and graphic artist in the Twin Cities. There, he would spend lunch breaks studying artists such as Norman Rockwell, and photographed the outdoors before and after work. He was painting full-time by the late 1970s, and by the 1990s was named one of America’s most popular artists by U.S. Art magazine.
The museum includes Redlin’s early sketches, an exhibit of Langenfeld ice cream (the dairy owned by his wife’s family), a gallery for guest-artist exhibits and a 30-acre park with trails. You can also see Redlin’s art supplies and studio chair, which were donated when he retired due to Alzheimer’s Disease.
Visitors can ask museum staffers for a handout highlighting Watertown settings depicted in Redlin’s paintings. For the full effect, visit the sites at sunrise or sunset, when Redlin could often be found shooting photos and seeking inspiration in the golden light.
Bramble Park Zoo: Lean in to take a photo of a lemur at this small zoo, and you might find another reaching out to toy with your hair before the group launches into raucous howling. This intimate zoo also lets you get beak-to-beak with scarlet ibises and roseate spoonbills, while a free-ranging white peacock and guinea hens shadow you along paths that lead to monkeys, penguins, snow leopards, buffalo and black bears, among the zoo’s 130 species.
The zoo is named for Frank Bramble, who started it in 1912 with pheasants and waterfowl and was instrumental in releasing 250 pairs of Chinese ringneck pheasants into the wild in 1911. They thrived and become a key part of South Dakota’s hunting traditions ($6-$8 ages 3 and older; 1-605-882-6269; www.brambleparkzoo.com).
Dip into history: Visitors can take 45-minute tours of the Mellette House, home of South Dakota’s first governor, and see artifacts from his days as governor of Dakota Territory in the 1880s. It’s open afternoons May through October (1-605-886-4730; www.mellettehouse.org). Tours are free (donations welcome), as is the Codington County Heritage Museum, housed in a 1906 Carnegie library (1-605-886-7335; www.cchsmuseum.org).
Watertown Confectionery: While this downtown shop’s chocolate-covered jalapeño potato-chip patties offer a fun twist on salty sweets, it’s better known as a hub for home brewers and winemakers. You can find everything for brewing — imported hops, chocolate malt, buckets of raw honey and gallon cans of gooseberries — plus ingredients for homemade root beer and ginger sodas (1-605-753-5249; www.watertownconfectionery.net).
Goss Opera House and Gallery: Whether you’re looking for a cold drink and live music at the Crossroads Bar, a date-night dinner at Charley’s Restaurant or a concert surrounded by vintage decor, this historic building with art by Meranda Turbak offers an elegant, artsy backdrop (1-605-878-4677; www.gossoperahouse.com).
Fiber Fair: The North Country Fiber Fair (Sept. 18-20) brings together crafters for classes in spinning, dyeing natural fibers, knitting, weaving, felting and other fiber arts, along with sheep shearing and sheepdog demonstrations (www.northcountryfiberfair.org; 1-605-956-7909).
Take Hwy. 212 west of the Twin Cities all the way to Watertown. The 200-mile trip includes the rolling terrain of the Prairie Coteau region as it crosses western Minnesota into South Dakota.
Where to sleep
The city offers a solid sampling of familiar hotel chains such as Best Western, Hampton Inn and Country Inn & Suites. If you crave something different and are willing to drive 40 miles back toward the Minnesota border, Buffalo Ridge Resort opened a few years ago at South Dakota’s former school for the blind in the tiny town of Gary. In addition to 19 rooms at the Herrick Hotel and dining at Rock Room Bar and Grill, there are RV and tent camping spots on the peaceful historic campus (1-605-272-7777; www.buffaloridgeresort.com).
RV and tent campers can find spots along Lake Kampeska at Codington County Memorial Park, which has a playground, swimming beach, bike paths and occasional concerts in the pavilion (1-605-882-6290; www.codington.org/memorial-park).
Where to eat
Past Times Coffee House and Restaurant in downtown Watertown charms visitors with antiques, local artifacts and toys for kids or games to play while waiting for a meal. Among their favorite offerings: a Cranny Granny (grilled roast turkey with cream cheese and cranberry sauce) or the Cow Tipper (sliced roast beef with garlic pepper cheese). Get a side of sweet corn nuggets or sweet potato slices with honey mustard and leave room for bread pudding made from their homemade caramel rolls (1-605-882-5813; www.pasttimesrestaurant.com).
At Good to Go Market and Grill, enjoy a strawberry spinach salad, raspberry cream croissants and homemade pies, or Indian fry bread tacos and sandwiches on the outdoor patio (1-605-753-5555).
Watertown Convention and Visitors Bureau: 1-800-658-4505; www.visitwatertownsd.com.
Lisa Meyers McClintick (www.lisamcclintick.com) wrote the ninth edition of “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path,” which was published this month.