Thursday, May 21, 2009

Wall Drug Store In South Dakota

If you go on a Roadtrip to South Dakota, at some point you are going to start seeing signs about Wall Drug. After you've seen a couple dozen you'll start to wonder what Wall Drug is. At least that is what I did.

By the time you are heading east from Rapid City, heading towards Badlands National Park, when you reach the exit that takes you to Wall Drug, there is no way you can resist seeing what it is. And getting some of that free ice water and 5 cent coffee.

When your eyes first spy Wall Drug Store you quickly make note that this seems to be quite a conglomeration of all sorts of things. With a lot of parking. And people. It costs you nothing to enter this Theme Park on the Prairie, a 76,000 square foot theme park.

Exploring Wall Drug is a bit like wandering around a maze. You walk wide "streets" with various shops and attractions along the way. It is all very Western, prime Americana. There is a coffee shop where you can get that nickel coffee and stuff to eat and a pizza parlor.

My purchases at Wall Drug were odd. A pair of jeans, a clay rattlesnake and an old time whiskey bottle. Much of Wall Drug has the feeling of being in a museum.

The history of how Wall Drug came to be is a classic American story. It was 1931, the Great Depression had depressed a lot of people. A guy named Ted Hustead was looking for a small town that needed a pharmacist. He and his wife, Dorothy, found an isolated town in South Dakota, named Wall and saw an opportunity. So, he bought Wall Drug.

Business was slow in the depressed little town of 231 people. Mount Rushmore had just opened and those who could afford to were driving past Wall on their way to see the presidents, sixty miles away. Then Dorothy got the brilliant idea to offer free ice water to thirsty trekkers. Signs were posted with the offer. From that point on one of America's best known tourist attractions was born.

Nowadays, in addition to free ice water and nickel coffee, Wall Drug is also giving visitors free bumper stickers that help spread the "Get Free Ice Water" message. If you are a honeymooner, veteran, priest, hunter or truck driver, Wall Drug will give you a free cup of coffee. And a donut. I don't know if it is as good as Krispy Kreme.

Wall Drug is the town of Wall's main industry, employing almost a third of the town's people. More than a million people visit the Wall Drug Store every year. On a busy summer day more than 20,000 people may arrive. Back before Mr. Hustead came to Wall, locals referred to their town as "the geographical center of nowhere." Now there are way more motel rooms in Wall than there are Wallites. Or whatever one calls a citizen of Wall.

If I haven't been clear enough, let me just say this, if you are in South Dakota, driving across the state on Interstate 90 and you drive by the Wall exit, without exiting, well, you have a fool for a driver and need to get someone else behind the wheel.


Cheap Tricks and Costly Truths said...

That is such a heart warming story! Fascinating that hordes of people come thru that hamlet. Reading of your travels, and the encounters you've had, elicits a desire to experience these places...Thank you.

Durango Roadtripping said...

Wall Drug was a real surprise. I like it when I have no clue what to expect and it turns out to be fun. In the Eastern Washington town of Cashmere there used to be a slightly similar type deal, in that it got people to seek it out due to signs all the world telling people to " Come to Tiny's." It was basically a fruit stand on steroids. I think they gave you a free sample of apple juice, the Washington version of ice water. And then Tiny's burned to the ground and never really was able to come back and match its former glory.