Wall Drug vaulted to a tourist destination by virtue of three little words: free ice water. Ted Hustead, two years after graduating from pharmacy school, along with his wife Dorothy, purchased the drugstore in the little town of Wall, South Dakota, in 1931. Economic and weather conditions had taken their toll on the locals, and business was slow. Neighbors, a pastor, and acts of goodwill kept it going, but a long-term solution was needed.
On a hot summer afternoon in 1936, with two children at home and no relief in sight, Dorothy had an epiphany. Travelers were driving across miles of prairie in the heat and must be thirsty. Wall Drug had water and ice. The couple could offer free ice water. To get the word out, they’d put up clever signs along the highway encouraging travelers to stop by. Just like that, an idea was born.
Dorothy shared her first sign idea with Ted: “Get a soda…Get a root beer…turn next corner…Just as near…To Highway 16 & 14…Free Ice Water…Wall Drug.”
Within hours, they came – for ice water, ice cream, directions. And that was the promising beginning of what has since become a famous roadside attraction.
Free ice water fueled the business, but it’s the signs that today make Wall Drug known the world over. You can find them on every continent, even Antarctica, with each displaying the corresponding mileage. On this trip I’ve seen Wall Drug bumper stickers on RVs and even on a metal railing guarding an overlook in the Yosemite area.
In between Rapid City and Wall on Interstate 90, the hand-painted signs pop up every quarter-mile or so. Most of them have a picture, often creatively combined with the language. For example, the one that reads “Dig It! Wall Drug” features a miner, and “Wall Drug A National Treasure” includes a treasure chest. The mileage ones dwindle as you near, and it’s impossible for the kid not to come out in you just a little bit – 105, 62, 29, 14…
Wall’s population is a little under a thousand people, and has only grown by about 100 since 1970. But it’s not unreasonable to think that Wall Drug is a factor for keeping it a town. After all, the hamlet had its largest percentage increase in population in the same decade that Dorothy and Ted Hudstead hatched their “Free Ice Water” idea.
And while there certainly may not be much more to do in Wall, a hub of surrounding businesses cater to tourists, and without Wall Drug it’s just hard to say how much of a town there would be. In 1982 Ted opined that the store was bringing in “up to twenty thousand people on a good summer day.”
On the first visit to Wall Drug, you may be confused because it appears to be an indoor shopping mall. A conglomerate of what appears to be separate stores is actually one. A pharmacy, bookstore, gift, shop, clothing shop, a diner…yep, they’re all a part of Wall Drug.
As are the giant rabbit, kiddie rides, and piano-playing and singing gorilla in the courtyard, and the T-Rex straight out of Jurassic Park that comes to life every 10 minutes in a show of steam, roars, and lit-up eyes. There’s also statues of the Wild West saving a seat for you on benches, walls and walls of family and community-related photographs, and a mini-chapel.
Whether it’s a fun stop to stretch your legs, a dire need for Pepto-Bismol, a craving for a Buffalo burger, the lure of a fun souvenir or a fine pair of boots, free ice water, or yes, just about anything else under the sun that draws you off the highway, you’re far from alone. Like bees to honey, they come in droves. And if you are one such case, don’t be surprised if you walk away with a Wall Drug bumper sticker – or at the very least a silly grin on your face.
When in Wall be sure to check out the giant dinosaur! Also, I highly recommend visiting the Wounded Knee Museum.
The Wall Drug website (history, black & white photos)
Sign composite photo from the Feyrer Summer Trip 2012 blog
All other photos by the author
Special thanks to Sarah from Wall Drug