Now In: Denver Post
The Denver Post
Wall Drug remains a U.S. kitschy coup
By Ron Franscell Denver Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 29, 2001 - WALL, S.D. -
Teddy Hustead, grandson of the couple who built a one-room pharmacy into an American roadside institution known worldwide as Wall Drug, sips coffee from a giddy little Styrofoam cup that says, "Glad you made it!"
For Pete's sake, it's not like you could miss it! Wall Drug signs suck you into the vortex of South Dakota's Badlands like a tractor beam. Sure, they seem discreet enough at first, like, say, in Antarctica (WALL DRUG - 10,645 MILES) or on London's double-decker buses (WALL DRUG - 4,378 MILES). But as you near the center of the giant-jackalope universe, 40 miles east of Rapid City on Interstate 90, the billboards grow thicker and more urgent: Wall Drug just ahead ... Watch for Exit 109 ... EXIT NOW!
You wouldn't want to miss it. For one, all those signs will make you feel guilty for driving past. For another, before Earth was festooned with Planet Hollywoods, Rainforest Cafes or any of the various Disneylands ... there was a Wall Drug.
In 1931, a 28-year-old pharmacist fresh out of college rolled into town with his wife and 4-year-old son in a rattle-trap cattle truck. Ted Hustead sunk $3,000 - every penny he had - into the local drugstore, but it soon became frighteningly clear: Nobody stopped. He and his wife, Dorothy, gave themselves five years to make it work, or move on. And for five years they stared out the empty front window into the ravenous maw of the Great Depression.
Then, on a searing summer day in 1936, Dorothy had a brainstorm: Why not put up signs on the highway offering free ice water? Family legends say when Ted got back from putting up the first sign, several cars were already parked on the street in front of Wall Drug.
In one stroke, Ted and Dorothy Hustead discovered the entrepreneurial equivalent of cold fusion: Product plus price plus promotion plus place equals profit. Today, Wall Drug spends more than $300,000 a year on its billboards, pours more than 5,000 free glasses of ice water a day in summer, and grosses more than $11 million.
But with what?
"We're selling an experience," Teddy Hustead, 49, says. "It's part education, part entertainment and part escape."
Three generations of Husteads have ice water in their veins. Ted and Dorothy lived to see their one-room drugstore blossom into one of America's Top 10 roadside attractions. Bill Hustead, their son, was the dreamer who nurtured it, who imagined something bigger. Bill was a drugstore cowboy in the purest sense, a pharmacist and three-term state legislator who loved to gussy up in leather and old Stetsons like his childhood buddies in Wall. It was all part of the show, but Bill truly loved the cowboy way and contributed generously to Indian charities. Now two of his seven children, Teddy and Rick, have been running the place since Bill's death in 1999 (coincidentally, the same year his father, Ted, died at 96).
"This was my dad's canvas for 30 years," Teddy says. "It's a piece of Americana, this business started in the Depression by a young couple trying to make it in a God-forsaken place in God-forsaken times."
Maybe God hasn't really forsaken tiny Wall, S.D., just forgot where he put it. The town teeters on a geological Purgatory known as "The Wall" - a craggy barrier between the gentle prairie and the ancient, eroded, forbidding Badlands. Maybe Wall is even closer to Hell than most: The town whose reputation was built on ice water now pumps its municipal supply from a 140-degree underground sea, and when it comes out of the tap, it's ironically tepid. So, on the eighth day, God made ice cubes.
The off-season so far has been the bleakest since the 1980s, merchants agree. High gas prices, a bear market and highway-blocking blizzards have all been blamed. Yet the slow winter doesn't necessarily forecast a slow summer, and Wall's Main Street remains buoyant.
But without Wall Drug, even God would have little reason to visit this town. At least one-third of the town of Wall's sales tax receipts are generated directly by the drugstore, says Town Finance Director Paullyn Carey. Other local businesses and government aren't just cozy with Wall Drug, they're dependent. The store drags in a reputed 70 percent of I-90 travelers. It employs more than 100 of Wall's 875 citizens year-round, never turning away a local kid seeking work. Its summer payroll has more than 250 workers. It ramrods many civic projects and provides a venue for everything from local pancake feeds to ecumenical Holy Week services in its own chapel.
Rick Hustead, Teddy's brother and Wall Drug's chairman, is a councilman, and both brothers are active behind the scenes in state politics.
Walking through the store, Teddy stops every few feet to chat with a local or to submit to genial teasing from his own employees. When a broken ankle hobbled Wall's Chamber Director Jonny Winn, Teddy personally delivered her lunch across Main Street.
"They get it," says Winn. "They know how it all works and they produce a kind of community companionship."
"Wall Drug owes its success to two things: audacity and billboards," says Ken Smith, co-author of "The New Roadside America," a guidebook to every kitschy-cool tourist attraction this side of the World's Largest Can of Fruit Cocktail in Sunnyvale, Calif. (WALL DRUG - 1,489 MILES).
"In the early years its billboards promised "free ice water' to weary travelers for hundreds of miles, something that, of course, any other store or restaurant or gas station could have done if it had had Wall Drug's nerve," Smith says. "Then, once it became successful, it had the audacity to turn a drugstore into a tourist attraction.
Nowadays, you have to look hard to find the drugstore - it's somewhere between the Pan For Gold sluice and the bullwhip shop, I think. But I doubt you'd find many visitors who care."
Actually, the pharmacy occupies a small niche upstairs where locals and travelers alike can still get prescriptions filled by two licensed pharmacists, a quiet little spot removed from the plaster rattlesnakes, nickel-a-cup coffee and souvenir shot glasses. Maybe it's unwise to mix certain medications and singing gorillas.
Wall Drug's promotional savvy has generated enough newspaper and magazine coverage to provide reading material in its famous air-conditioned restrooms for another 70 years. The New York Times, Newsweek, Playboy, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Better Homes and Gardens and Field & Stream, among others, PC Magazine (and now The Denver Post, among the hundreds of others) have pumped Wall Drug's popularity and profits as much as its ubiquitous billboards.
But progress is a minefield for an American institution where nostalgia is a stock in trade. Teddy Hustead is careful not to monkey with a motif firmly stuck in the 1950s' road culture. Oh, sure, Wall Drug's e-commerce site gets about 5,000 hits a month, and Teddy recently graduated from an intensive executive course at Harvard (WALL DRUG - LIGHT-YEARS), and his beeper yaps incessantly ... but the folks only want to see the stuff their memories are made of.
Teddy's been verbally assaulted by children who expected to see the same 6-foot rabbit that haunts their mothers' and fathers' vacation memories. And although it's temporarily in storage, one of Wall Drug's proudest possessions is a wall of photos taken by visitors and mailed back ... a time warp where it's possible for a child to see his parents or grandparents standing beside the same George Custer tree-trunk carving where his own picture was just taken.
Many employees feel a part of the extended Hustead family.
Andy Eisenbraun started painting Wall Drug's billboards 37 years ago, at age 18. He's slathering marine plywood with familiar Sherwood green in the paint shop where the Rolling Stones seep from a tinny radio, and he points proudly at photos of Wall Drug signs he's designed and painted.
"This place is an institution partly because they treat all of us like family here, and I think people can come in and see it. It's comfortable for them," he says.
Mike Huether, 44, was a 16-year-old ranch kid when Bill Hustead made him a cook. When Bill's sons went off to college and other jobs, Huether learned the business and now manages it. Teddy pays him the rarest compliment: "He's like the son my father never had."
"We don't have any big dreams (about expansion)," Teddy says. "We could do more harm than good. We're not Wal-Mart, we're Wall Drug. We're a roadside attraction. That's what differentiates us."
That, and the cheap thrills.
"We are lured to the store by its offers of free, or dirt-cheap, goods. Aren't we all in search of a free lunch?" asks Christine des Garennes, former managing editor of Roadside Magazine and now a Chicago travel writer. "Of course, you won't walk away with just a free cup of coffee or ice water. Somehow you will find yourself forking over money for something you have absolutely no use for, but, for some strange reason, feel compelled to buy."
And Wall Drug stocks more gimcracks than you can shake a genuine Crazy Horse coup stick at: rubber bugs, personalized sheriff badges, homemade doughnuts (free for hunters, honeymooners and Vietnam vets), Mount Rushmore fridge magnets, jackalope hunting permits. It's nearly impossible to recite the enormous inventory with a straight face.
Teddy Hustead knows it's goofy, but he also knows it brings an estimated 20,000 visitors into his store every day in summer. "When people say it's junk," he says as he leans back in his late father's chair, "they just don't get it."
Teddy calls his Branding Iron Shooting Gallery and Little Britches Toy Emporium - one corner of the 50,000-square-foot complex - "truly Wall Drug-ish," but he's hard-pressed to define it. "To me, I guess it's a Western theme with a little Barnum and Bailey flair ... but it's really different things to different people."
So that's it. One man's rubber tomahawk is another's lost childhood. You can take the boy out of the lizard-skin boots, but you can't take the lizard-skin boots out of the boy.
"I like this place because it's so unabashedly hokey, it's cool," says Boulder chiropractor Jeff Fountain, who took the long way home from Chicago just to show his two teenage daughters "this crazy place" he'd last seen more than 25 years ago.
It's not all hokey. Wall Drug also features an enormous art gallery, historical museum, a bookstore with a mountainous selection of Western history books, fine jewelry and Western wear, and educational exhibits about real cowboys and Indians. The American black walnut walls in the restaurant are a backdrop to 360 original works by artists such as Gutzon Borglum, Saturday Evening Post illustrator Harvey Dunn, and Western painter Hildred Goodwine.
Still, three kids of the Nintendo Age sit transfixed by the corny Cowboy Orchestra, a life-size, pre-animatronic robot-o-rama with all the musical charm of nearly synchronized windshield wipers. Their mother, Mary Ann Pierce, smiles a resigned mommy smile, knowing she can't possibly get home to Omaha (WALL DRUG - 469 MILES) by nightfall.
"We got suckered in by the signs," she says with a sigh, but without any genuine hint of regret.