Now In: Guideposts
Remember this story from 1982 about a tiny South Dakota pharmacy? When he opened his business during the Great Depression, Ted Hustead had no idea how far he’d go. He died in January of this year, but not before his store became a sprawling tourist attraction known worldwide.
“We might as well close up, Ted,” my wife, Dorothy, said. “There won’t be any more customers today.”
I knew Dorothy was right, but I stepped out into the dusk, hoping to see someone coming our way.
It was December 1931. Dorothy and I had just bought the only drug store in a town called Wall on the edge of the South Dakota Badlands. We’d been open just a few days, and business had been bad.
I stood shivering on the wooden sidewalk. In this little town there were only 326 people, 326 poor people. Most of them were farmers who’d been wiped out either by the Depression or drought.
Out on the prairie the cold wind whipped up dust devils. I could see a Tin Lizzie chugging along the two-laner. Suitcases were strapped to the running boards. I wished the folks driving would stop, just for a cup of coffee, but they didn’t. Here on Main Street no one was out.
I went back inside and turned off the light over the soda fountain. Then I joined Dorothy and our four-year-old son, Billy, in our “apartment,” a room we had made by stretching a blanket across the back of the store.
We huddled around the coal stove and waited for our dinner to cook. After Billy was fed and put to bed, Dorothy said to me, “Do you still think this town is the right place for us?”
“I think so,” I answered, but I couldn’t hide my doubts. It seemed we’d come to a hopelessly bleak place.
I had graduated from pharmacy school in 1929, and after two years of working for other druggists I knew Dorothy and I had to find our own store. My father had left me a $3,000 legacy. We’d work with that.
We were living in Canova, SD, when we began our search, covering Nebraska and South Dakota in our Model T. We were sure of two things: We wanted to be in a small town, and we wanted the town to have a Catholic Church. In Canova the nearest parish was 20 miles away. We wanted to be able to go to Mass every day.
In Wall, where the drugstore was for sale, we found both a small town and a Catholic church. When we talked to the priest, the doctor and the banker, they all told us Wall was a good place with good people, and they wanted us to come live there.
Dorothy and I were excited about Wall, but when we got back home and told our families about our plan, they were skeptical.
“That town is in the middle of nowhere,” a cousin said. “Furthermore, everybody there is flat broke busted.”
My father-in-law was understanding, but even he said, “You know, Wall is just about as godforsaken as you can get.”
But Dorothy and I couldn’t give up on Wall, so our families agreed we should all pray about the decision. In the end everyone felt it was God’s will for us to go. But now Dorothy and I wondered if we’d heard God right.
The first few months went by and business didn’t improve much. Once again, Dorothy and I sat by the stove and asked ourselves if we’d done the right thing.
“Five years, Dorothy,” I said. “That’s what I think we should give to this store. If it doesn’t work by then, well, then we’ll –”
“Don’t worry about then,” said Dorothy. “We’ll make it go. And just think, Ted, pretty soon that monument at Mount Rushmore will be done, and then there will be an endless stream of people going by. I’m sure they’ll visit us!”
Over the next few years we drummed up enough business to pay our bills, but that was it. The boys from the Civilian Conservation Corps sometimes came in for sodas on a Saturday night, and every July 10, when Wall held its town birthday, we served a lot of ice cream.
We weren’t starving, it’s true, and we’d begun to make good friends in Wall. Our pastor, Father John Connolly, had become a tower of strength, helping us keep our faith strong. And we had worked hard to serve our neighbors well. Filling prescriptions for a sick child or an ailing farmer made me feel I was doing something good. I also studied some veterinary medicine on my own so I could help out farmers when their stock was ill.
But all this didn’t seem to be enough. Maybe, as Dorothy’s father had said, Wall was godforsaken.
By the time the summer of 1936 came around our business hadn’t grown much at all. Our five-year trial would be up in December. What would we do then? Along with nine-year-old Billy, Dorothy and I now had a one-month-old daughter, Mary Elizabeth. What hardships were they in for? I was lost in a dust storm of worries and doubts. I was ready to give up.
One Sunday, though, in the deadening heat of a July afternoon, Dorothy said, “You don’t need me here, Ted. I’m going to go put Billy and the baby down for a nap and maybe take one myself.” So she and the children headed off to a room we had rented on the outskirts of town.
I minded the empty store. I swatted flies with a rolled-up newspaper. I stood in the door, and no matter where I looked, there was no shade, because the sun was so high and fierce.
An hour later Dorothy came back.
“Too hot to sleep?” I asked.
“No, it wasn’t the heat,” Dorothy said. “It was all the cars going by on Route 16A. The jalopies just about shook the house to pieces.”
“That’s too bad.” I said.
“No, because you know what, Ted? I think I finally saw how we can get all those travelers to come to our store.”
“How’s that?” I asked.
“Well, what is it those travelers really want after driving across that hot prairie? They want water. Ice cold water! Why don’t we put up signs on the highway telling people to come here for free ice water? Listen, I even made up a few lines for the sign:
“Get a soda
Get a root beer
Turn next corner
Just as near
To Highway 16 and 14
Free ice water
It wasn’t Wordsworth, but I was willing to give it a try. During the next few days a high-school boy and I put together some signs. We modeled them after the Burma Shave highway signs. Each phrase of Dorothy’s little poem went on a 12- by 36-inch board.
The next weekend the boy and I went out to the highway and put up our signs. We spaced the boards out so people could read them as they drove. I must admit I felt somewhat silly doing it, but by the time I got back to the store people were already showing up for their ice water.
Dorothy was running all around to keep up. I pitched in alongside her. For hours people came pouring in, all hot and frazzled. For hours we poured gallons of ice water, made ice cream cones and gave directions. We ran through our supply of cracked ice. I began chiseling more off the block.
When the day was done Dorothy and I were pooped. We sat in front of the store, watching the sun set, feeling a cool breeze come in off the prairie. In the summer twilight Wall looked radiant. It looked like a great place to call home.
“Well, Ted,” Dorothy said after a while, “I guess the ice water signs worked.”
They surely did, and we’ve never been lonely for customers since. The following summer we had to hire eight girls to help us, and now that the store is in the good hands of my son, Bill, Wall Drug draws up to 20,000 people on a good summer day.
Free ice water. It brought us Husteads a long way, and it taught me my greatest lesson: There’s absolutely no place on God’s earth that’s godforsaken. No matter where you live, you can succeed, because you can reach out to other people with something they need.
And when you give people what they need, you’ve helped them. You’ll find that when you help others, you end up helping yourself as well. That means more than good business; it means a good, happy life.
An American Legacy
Ted Hustead founded his business 67 years ago. Since then, Wall Drug has grown from a one-room store on a dusty South Dakota street to a 75,000-square-foot tourist mecca. It still manages to retain its small-town warmth, in large part because Ted kept the business in the family, passing it on to his son, Bill, when he stepped down from active management in 1965.
Then, in 1981, Bill’s son Rick came to work alongside his father. “My dad was a great boss,” says Rick. “Not only did he listen, but he followed up with action.” Rick, who heads up personnel and the 510-seat café, enticed his brother, Teddy, away from the oil fields of Alaska to manage the retail operations and merchandising.
“We complement each other well,” says Rick. “Above all, we’re working managers. That’s something we inherited from Dad, who learned it from his dad. We’re very hands-on – I’m still cleaning tables here like I did when I was eight!”
Ted Hustead, who died in January of this year, lived long enough to see his dream become a reality: Wall Drug draws some two million visitors a year, many on their way to visit Mount Rushmore and the Badlands. But to this day the family’s definition of success is not measured by sheer numbers. Sure, it’s a business, but, as Bill says, “We also believe that it’s a noble calling - we’re here to do good, for the people who work for us and the people we serve.” And that’s the true Hustead legacy.