Wall Drug Store
Wall, South Dakota
Wall Drug is the American roadside wonder best known to people who've never been to America. Metro riders in Paris have seen signs for Wall Drug. So have rail commuters in Kenya, bus passengers in London, and visitors to the Taj Mahal.
We only know this because Wall Drug boasts about it on its billboards. Hundreds of them line the east-west approaches along Interstate 90 in South Dakota, tantalizing travelers with offers of five cent coffee and free ice water, and proclaiming Wall Drug: as seen on Good Morning America; ...as seen in People, ...as seen in Better Homes and Gardens, etc. (As if Wall Drug needs validation from the media.) There are even a few, widely dispersed, hippie-era survivor signs: Have You Dug Wall Drug?
Wall Drug is the principal industry in the town of Wall. It's a sprawling tourist mall that occupies most of downtown and employs nearly a third of its population. Over a million people stop at Wall Drug every year -- 20,000 on a good summer day. If every Wall resident decided to rent a motel room on the same night, there'd still be over 400 vacancies.
It was not always so. Wall used to be known by locals as "the geographical center of nowhere." But that was before Ted Hustead came along.
Ted was a Nebraska native who opened a tiny drug store in Wall in 1931. Five years later it was still a tiny drug store. Dorothy, Ted's wife, thought that the people driving past must be thirsty, and suggested that Ted put up a sign on the highway advertising free ice water at Wall Drug. It sounded silly -- at the time every drug store gave away free ice water -- but Ted put up the sign anyway. By the time that he got back, thirsty tourists were lining up for their free ice water. They've been stopping ever since.
Once Ted got it into his head that signs could draw customers, he went billboard-crazy. Painted wood signs proclaimed "Wall I'll Be Drugged" and "Wall Drug Or Bust" in every state of the union (At their peak in the 1960s, Wall Drug had over 3,000 highway signs). "Dad always insisted on painted wood," his son Bill once told us (Both he and Ted passed away in 1999). "Painted wood isn't as fun to shoot as enameled metal."
Ted ran the place until the 1970s when Bill took over, and under Bill's guiding hand it grew considerably.
"I was embarrassed when I was in high school," Bill said. "All those signs, and when you arrived it was just an ordinary small town store. It was my crusade to develop the store into something special." Bill did. Wall Drug still has a tiny pharmacy -- the only one within 50 miles -- but its peripheral amusements have taken over and now extend across a labyrinth of connected buildings.
Wall Drug's famous free ice-water well is out in the Wall Drug Back Yard, where it can pump several thousands of gallons of water cooled by 1.5 tons of man-made ice on a hot July afternoon. The Back Yard also shelters a variety of photo-ops, including a furry six-foot-tall rabbit on wheels, a mini-Mount Rushmore, and a saddled, fiberglass giant jackalope (only slightly smaller than the world's largest). We've visited the Back Yard on many trips since childhood, and it's evolved from a dirt lot of wonders to a paved mall courtyard of wonders (but thumbs down on the tidy replacement of the old jaw-less Singing Sam the Gorilla Man, which must've finally decayed into a rotting pile of scraps and fur).
A life-size T-rex roars every few minutes from behind a Jurassic Park-style electric fence, guarding a long hallway gallery that displays Wall Drug's many framed awards and press clippings.
Mechanical creations inhabit the nooks and crannies that surround the shops inside Wall Drug, which mimic storefronts in a Wild West town. A lively "Spirit of '76" trio performs regularly, as does a goggle-eyed Cowboy Orchestra. The famous Wall Drug "Chuck Wagon Quartette" -- a band of cowboys the Husteads smuggled out of a Mays Department Store window in Denver -- sings Tumbling Tumbleweeds every 20 minutes. It's just down the hall from the Traveler's Chapel, a replica of an 1850s Trappist monastery.
Across from this stands the "Pharmacy Museum" -- a replica of the original Wall Drug -- displaying the machine that Bill Hustead's grandfather used to make suppositories. And across from this is an indoor cafeteria. Coffee at Wall Drug is still five cents a cup, and the kitchen makes its own donuts and fudge. Every square inch of Wall Drug's knotty pine interior is covered with stuffed animal heads, totem poles, carved statues, and mechanical money-sucker machines -- a wealth of eye-clutter that would put the average Cracker Barrel franchise to shame.
When I-90 bypassed Wall in the late 1960s, the Husteads (now in their third generation) did not sit back and wait for their business to die. Instead, they hired Emmet Sullivan, who had built Christ of the Ozarks and Rapid City's Dinosaur Park, to erect a fifty-ton, 80-foot-long dinosaur with light bulb eyes next to the freeway -- just to remind travelers that Wall Drug was still open and still expected them pay homage.
They do. Koozies and coolers have made ice water portable, but everyone driving through South Dakota still stops at Wall Drug.