The most beloved roadside attraction in America?
If you’re driving along Interstate 90 from Minnesota to Montana, there’s a good chance you’ll see signs for the wildly popular tourist attraction Wall Drug Store. According to their website, Wall Drug brings more than two million people to the town of Wall, South Dakota, each year, but it didn’t start out that way. Here’s how they used several items, including free ice water, to lure in tourists during the Great Depression, transforming their entire business.
Driving through the Great Plains, you’ll come across a plethora of roadside attractions -- giant fiberglass cows, larger-than-life prairie dogs, the “world’s largest” of just about anything -- but most offer the same experience. You simply pull off the road for a quick photo op and then you’re on your way again.
Wall Drug Store is a roadside attraction of an entirely different breed. Current owner Rick Hustead calls Wall Drug Store “the most loved roadside attraction in America,” but Wall Drug is arguably much more than a roadside attraction. It’s a destination in of itself, where one could easily spend hours or the entire day and still not discover all its delightful surprises waiting around every corner.
Wall Drug Store, as it’s known today, was founded in 1936, but its origins stretch back to 1931, when the Hustead family, made up at the time of husband-and-wife duo Ted and Dorothy and their new son, moved to the remote, tiny town of Wall, South Dakota, and opened a drug store under a different name.
Business was not good. It was the Great Depression, the “Dirty 30s” and the Dust Bowl era. According to Rick, “One man said it was the worst possible time to start anything.”
Ted and Dorothy set up shop in a 24-by-60 storefront. “They were living in the back 20 feet of the store with their 4-year-old son Billy, my dad, behind a curtain,” Rick told AccuWeather, adding some levity to the grim tale with a joke. “They were never late for work!”
According to the Wall Drug Store website, Ted originally gave his entrepreneurial endeavor five years to work, so, when his resources were dwindling in 1936, the store's future looked bleak. That was, until Dorothy came up with an ingenious, yet simple, marketing idea.
“They were in the middle of the depression and they were going broke. It wasn’t until … 1936, when my grandmother Dorothy had the idea to start advertising, that Wall Drug really became profitable and could stay in business,” Rick said.
Dorothy encouraged her husband to put together some signage along the nearby highway -- the same one that tourists were traveling every day to visit the South Dakota Badlands -- bearing an enticing rhyme: “Get a soda. Get a root beer. Turn next corner. Just as near. To Highway 16 and 14. Free ice water. Wall Drug Store.”
The unforgiving summer sun and heat made for a scorching trip to and from the Badlands, particularly during an age when air conditioned automobiles had yet to arrive on the scene. A cup of icy water -- and for free, no less -- was difficult to turn down.
“Ted thought it was a little corny but it might just work. He hired a high school boy and they went out and put the sign up. Before he got back, the first customers were already stopping,” Rick said. “Ted thought, if one sign had that kind of impact, what would 20 or 30 Wall Drug signs along the highway do? And he put up more and more signs. After they started doing roadside advertising, they were so busy the first summer they had to hire eight young girls to run the store and the old-fashioned soda fountain.”
The hundreds of roadside signs, advertising everything from donuts to cowboy hats, now stretch all the way from Minnesota to Billings, Montana.
Wall Drug Today
Today, Wall is still remote and tiny (with a population under 1,000 as of 2017), but it’s been completely transformed by the modern-day Wall Drug Store. After business began booming for Ted and Dorothy, they upgraded to a 1,500-square-foot storefront and then a 3,000-square-foot storefront. When their son Bill returned to the family business as a registered pharmacist in 1951, he had even bigger plans for Wall Drug Store.
“He wanted to really expand the store,” Rick explained. “In his 48-year career, he built everything -- our dining rooms, the backyard, the shop across the street, our mall. When Bill finished his career, Wall Drug was at 76,000 square feet. He had a vision.”
Across those 76,000 square feet, millions of travelers each year are treated to far more than just free ice water (though you can still find that, too).
There are multiple spots to enjoy a bite to eat, whether you want a fresh milkshake, bison burger or cup of coffee, still priced at a nickel a cup. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss the nicely tucked away traveler’s chapel. Art galleries boast huge collections of Western art, illustrations and vintage photography. The array of shops sell everything from the toiletries you might normally expect in a drug store to western wear, souvenirs and books. Outdoors in the Wall Drug “backyard,” travel-weary children can burn off some energy playing in the water features or climbing atop the giant jackalope.
“Once [people] are here, we’d like to not disappoint them. There’s plenty to do and see,” says Rick. “Wall Drug is a fun stop … We want our customers to have an enjoyable stop, to be entertained, to enjoy the food in our restaurants and the many things to do and see here in Wall Drug.”
As Rick prepares to hand the reigns over to the fourth generation of Husteads, one thing is for sure: If trends continue, this “most loved roadside attraction” will only grow bigger and better with time.
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