Ted Hustead Is Dead at 96; Built the Popular Wall Drug
--A jingle, signs and some icy cold water put a small store on the world map—
By Robert McG. Thomas Jr.
Anybody who watched Ted Hustead roll into Wall, S.D. on a cattle truck in December 1931, his wife and 4-year-old son at his side, the family’s entire stock of meager possessions piled in the back, would have needed quite a crystal ball to predict that by the time Mr. Hustead died two-thirds of a century later, the governor of South Dakota would be moved to open his annual state-of-the-state address with a tribute to the man who became a beloved south Dakota legend by turning a small town pharmacy named Wall Drug into the world’s most popular drugstore.
A sprawling tourist attraction of international renown, it takes in more than $10 million a year and draws some two million annual visitors to a remote town whose population has never risen above 800.
Then again, hot dusty and remote as Wall was and is, 50 miles east of Rapid City on the edge of the notorious Badlands, not even Mr. Hustead could have predicted just how far a pharmacist could go – or how far people would travel to come to him – with the offer of a free drink of ice water and a ubiquitous, world-famous network of clever roadside signs and bumper stickers.
Or as Gov. William J. Janklow put it on Wednesday, a day after Mr. Hustead died at 96 at a hospital in Philip, S.D.: “He’s a guy that figured out that free ice water could turn you into a phenomenal success in the middle of a semi-arid desert way out in the middle of someplace.” Or nowhere, as it seemed at the time.
Certainly, in 1931 it would have been hard to predict that anyone who settled in Wall would make much of a mark, let alone a 28 year-old pharmacist who had used the entire $3,000 he inherited from his father to buy the town’s lone drug store.
A doctor’s son from Phillips, Neb., Mr. Hustead had earned a pharmacist’s degree from the University of Nebraska and worked as a farm laborer and later at a grain elevator in Sioux Falls before heeding his mother’s advice to seek independence.
According to family lore, as the truck made the 300 mile trek to Wall, the driver described the rigors of the West with such mounting fever and in such vivid detail that by the time he got around to snakes, little Billy was so distraught that he asked why in the world the family had left its nice little brick house in Sioux Falls for such a forsaken place.
“Because,” his mother, Dorothy, explained, “your father is crazy.”
Settling in the store’s back room, the Husteads agreed to stick it out for five years, but after taking only $360 the first month and not much more after that, it began to seem that Wall Drug had been a dead end.
Then with only six months to go on the five-year limit and just after the family had moved to a house out near the highway, Mrs. Hustead had a brainstorm.
Going home for a nap on an especially hot Sunday in July 1936, she was back in an hour complaining that she hadn’t been able to sleep because of the incessant rumble of traffic on Route 16.
It got her to thinking, she said, that if they put up a little sign out on the highway offering free ice water to tourists on their way to Mount Rushmore maybe some of them would turn off to quench their thirst and perhaps even buy something.
Inspired by the proliferating Burma Shave ditties of the day, she even composed a little jingle: “Get a soda/Get root beer/Turn next corner/Just as near/To Highway 16 and 14/Free Ice Water/Wall Drug.”
Mr. Hustead needed no further prodding. By the time he got back from putting up the sign the next day, cars had already started turning off and making the block and a half to Wall Drug on Main Street.
They haven’t stopped. Fired by the initial success, Mr. Hustead began expanding the store, adding wares and attractions while installing signs along every highway in South Dakota and neighboring states, all proclaiming just how much farther a motorist had to go to reach the promised land of Wall Drug.
In time Mr. Hustead was spending $300,000 a year on billboard advertising, including Wall Drug signs on London buses and in every train station in Kenya. But it was American G.I.’s who took up the craze and spread the Wall Drug word to the far corners of the world. During World War II it seemed that every sign saying “Kilroy was here,” was accompanied by one giving the mileage to Wall Drug.
(Regulations to keep the nation’s scenic highways free of visual pollution eventually crimped the Hustead style. Still, after I-90 replaced the old highways, periodic surveys showed that as much of three-quarters of the traffic turned off to visit Wall Drug, but then who can resist an exit marked by an 80-foot dinosaur?)
In addition to delighting motorists, the signs generated hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, many displayed on a wall of Wall Drug, a tourist attraction that seems famous largely for its very fame.
Today, even after the little store has been expanded into a 75,000-square-foot colossus of western kitsch with an enclosed mall, dozens of shops selling everything from T-shirts to expensive boots (you can have wine with your buffalo burger in the 400-plus-seat restaurant), a summertime staff of 250 and an array of corny free attractions like a cowboy orchestra that plays every 15 minutes, the quintessential way to experience Wall Drug seems to be to stand at the wall of clippings reading about people standing at the wall clippings reading about people standing at the wall.
Long after he turned over active management to his son, Bill, whose recent illness has forced him to hand the reins to his sons, Rick and Ted, the proprietor was a constant, proud presence at Wall Drug.
Mr. Hustead, whose wife died in 1994, and whose survivors include another son, Charles of Topeka, Kan.; two daughters, Marry Bottum and Catherine Roe, both of Los Angeles, 17 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren, knew that there were other popular international tourist attractions.
The Taj Mahal, for example. As the sign says, it’s “only 10,728 miles to Wall Drug.”