The Signs of Wall Drug
By Ronald MacArthur
With a name like “Wall” a town has a lot of explaining to do. This small town (population 800) on the western border of South Dakota, near the Badlands National Park and 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Rapid City, offers no apologies – just free ice water.
The water is courtesy of Wall Drug, which is like an oasis in the midst of seemingly endless prairies. But that’s not all tourists can get at Wall Drug, a stop on Interstate 90, a long, lonely highway across South Dakota.
Although its name signifies a drugstore, it’s unlike any drugstore anywhere else in the world. It’s a museum, restaurant (with authentic buffalo burgers), pharmacy, jewelry store, camping outfitter, soda fountain, tourist information center, Indian-book store, Western souvenir shop, Western art gallery (with 150 paintings), cowboy boot and Indian moccasin shop, and Western wear and equipment store, all wrapped into one.
In 1931, Ted and Dorothy Hustead moved to Wall and opened a small pharmacy. Business was slow, until they hit on an idea to help tired, thirsty, tourists cool off, and in 1936 they placed homemade signs along the highway advertising free ice water. Today there are signs every few miles along Interstate 90.
“We decided at that time to call the store Wall Drug after the town because it was easy to pronounce and put on a sign board,” Hustead says. The gimmick worked and it wasn’t long before business was booming. The Husteads now spend $200,000 annually for their 3,000 billboards and signs.
Advertising has paid off for the Husteads, but they are not content to stick with road signs in South Dakota and neighboring states. Wall Drug is advertised throughout the United States, on London’s double-decker buses and on road signs in Paris, Amsterdam and Rome.
Visitors to Wall Drug can also receive a free sign if they promise to display it and send back a photograph. Lining the walls of the drugstore are snapshots of Wall Drug signs all over the globe, including the South Pole and the North Pole. There is even a Wall Drug sign in Hell (Michigan).
“A friend of ours who served with the Red Cross during World War II put up signs for us all over Europe,” Hustead says.
As the signs showed up along battlefronts in Europe, servicemen began to write to the Husteads asking for more signs. It wasn’t unusual to see signs like this: “17km Mannheim; 81km Frankfurt; Wall Drug Store 4,321 Miles (7,000 Kilometers).”
Today, during the summer as many as 20,000 tourists a day stops at Wall Drug. The drugstore has grown to a 12-shop mall and 500-seat restaurant. During the summer 100 local people and 120 college students, who are housed in 18 homes owned by the Husteads, work at Wall Drug.
The Husteads are counting on an increasing interest in winter sports in the nearby Black Hills to boost business in the winter.
The family business has grown from a $300 a month pharmacy to a $5.5 million a year enterprise.
The Husteads, although semi-retired, are still active in the business, now managed y their son, Bill, and his oldest son, Rick.
Although most tourists leave with bags of postcards, South Dakota souvenirs and an assortment of Wall Drug memorabilia, it’s possible to visit and not spend a cent. There are art displays and 150 historical pictures in the “Back Yard Display Building.”
You can pose for photographs with a stuffed horse, stuffed buffalo or a six-foot (two meter) tall rabbit or take a look at the Jackalope, a rare Western animal that is part rabbit, part antelope and all fantasy. ( But you can still buy an “official Jackalope Hunting Permit.”)
Then there are life-size carvings of four Sioux Indian Chiefs and several cowboys including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And the Cowboy Orchestra and Chuckwagon Quartet performs every 20 minutes.
In addition living up to their often-quoted promise, the Wall Drug folks give out about 5,500 free glasses of ice water a day during the summer.
If while driving down Interstate 90 amid the wheatfields and prairies you miss the signs proclaiming “Ted and Bill Housetop’s Wall Drug Store,” it’s still not hard to find: Look for the 80-foot dinosaur marking the entrance.