In South Dakota: Buffalo Burgers at Wall Drug
Stretching toward sunset from the Missouri, South Dakota’s West River country is an unrelieved expanse of rough-hewn plains and arid badlands. Under the tough sod lie prairie dog towns and nuclear missile silos. Above ground, a handful of ranchers raise sheep and cattle on the stingy rangeland. Mostly, natives say, there are miles and miles of miles and miles.
Only the signs and billboards along Interstate 90 break the monotony. They beckon to motorists heading west toward Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone or east toward Sioux Falls and the industrial Midwest. The pitch is tantalizing: BE A WALL FLOWER. HAVE YOU DUG WALL DRUG? WALL-EYED AT WALL DRUG.
The signs lead to a drugstore and soda fountain three-quarters of a block long that has grown into an oasis of friendly commercial hurdy-gurdy in the middle of the sparse prairie. The Wall Drug Store in Wall, South Dakota (population 800), 50 miles east of Rapid City, is a three-generation family business that this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. Its
standing offer of free ice water, and coffee for 5 cents – as much as you can drink of both – helps attract as many as 20,000 customers on a busy summer day, maybe a million a year.
The whole improbable enterprise was started in the depths of the Depression by a 28-year-old Nebraska pharmacist named Ted Hustead. He had a $3,000 stake, a wife, a child of four, and the brass of a born capitalist. Now 78, with wire-rimmed trifocals, thin white hair and a deeply lined face, Ted looks like a kindly drugstore man out of Norman Rockwell. In earlier pictures, he looked more serious and resolute. “We weren’t trying to make it rich,” he recalls. “We were trying to make a living”.
The story of how his wife Dorothy penned some doggerel (“Get a soda, get a beer, turn next corner, just as near, to Highway 16 and 14, free ice water, Wall Drug”) to attract thirsty motorist has assumed Arthurian dimensions in South Dakota. Remembers Ted: “ We hardly got back to the store from putting the sign up before people started turning in.” Before long, billboards sprouted along the highways in every direction; someone once counted 53 along a 45-mile stretch. G.I.s tacked up Wall Drug signs as they made their way through Europe in World War II. The same thing happened in Korea and Vietnam. The store is covered with photographs of tourists, soldiers and scientists displaying Wall Drug signs everywhere from Antarctica to the Taj Mahal. The drugstore has even paid for advertising sign in Amsterdam, Paris and London. In the end, all these signs produce enough curiosity to attract even the most blasé passer-by. “I just had to stop,” said a longhaired, leather-jacketed biker from Beloit, WI on his way to a motorcycle rally in the Black Hills. “This is all I have been reading for the past 200 miles.”
Travelers pulling off I-90 at the Wall exit (the one with the 80-foot dinosaur next to the highway) thread through station wagons and campers jamming Main Street. Once inside Wall Drug, road-weary visitors are faced with a bewildering pastiche of class and kitsch. The store sells $200 Tony Lama boots – as well as $2.19 models of Mount Rushmore and corncob toilet paper for $1.19. Left-handed calf ropers can buy lariats twisted especially for southpaws. The Rockhound Shop offers fossils and crystals. Campers buy heavy iron skillets, lightweight canteens and water-purifying tablets; ranchers buy louse-fly killer, sheep-branding liquid and cow vaccine. God knows who buys hundreds upon hundreds of Wall Drug gimcracks from spoon holders to ashtrays. “People want a little something they can take back to Grandma,” says Bill Hustead, 54, Ted’s son. A Madison, WI woman on her way to Wyoming is agape, like most newcomers: “This blows we away. Who’d think there would be something like this, ten miles from a herd of bison?”
Customers usually gravitate past the wooden Annie Oakley on the bench, the walls laden with Western and Hustead family memorabilia, to one of the four scattered rooms of the café (seating for 550; breakfast starts at 6:00 a.m.). The special is a hot beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy, but the menu also offers more exotic fare; a buffalo burger – yep, ground bison – and a selection of California wines. This last was Bill Hustead’s idea: “ I thought it would give the place a little class. I thought people chewing on a fishwich or a buffalo burger might get a kick out of having a nice wine at the table.”
Bill, an affable but serious businessman, says this with a smile and a slight West River twang. He brims with pride over his family’s $4.5 million enterprise. “What is more beautiful, really, than a business?” he asks rhetorically. A registered pharmacist, he runs the operation now, although Ted, officially retired for a couple of years, still puts in several hours a day during the busy summer season. Bill’s son Rick, 31, a former high school guidance counselor in Iroquois, SD, who returned to Wall in March, may someday take over the reins.
Bill Hustead likes to point out that customers return, not just the big spending families from the cities, but also the four locals over at the corner table, all elderly ranchers wearing string ties and straw hats, who have been sipping nickel coffee and talking weather all afternoon. Despite its chintzy tourist baubles, Wall Drug has a homeliness that makes customers spend with a smile. Perhaps a young Connecticut man, heading west with his new bride (but passing up the FREE COFEE AND DONUTS TO HONEYMOONERS), puts it best: They don’t try to make a lot of money off a few people, just a little money off a lot of people. -By Jay Branegan