When traveling through South Dakota, it is hard to miss Wall Drug. Literally. There are dozens of billboards alerting you as you approach it, one right after another.
It should be noted before I get too deep into this post that all my photos from Wall are absolute garbage. My usual camera had died, and I couldn’t get the car charger to work. So I had to use my back up camera, which was my underwater camera. A very cheap underwater camera. So the photo quality is very poor, and the colors are all funky. So focus on the subject of the photo, not the aesthetics. Moving on…
Well, we had already planned on stopping in Wall anyways, but even if we hadn’t, I’m pretty sure the billboards would’ve lured us in. I mean, homemade breakfast rolls, donuts, fudge, and pie??? Come on. How could we resist?
Upon arrival, it was already the tourist trap of our dreams. A fake little old west town full of touristy goodness. We had just driven in after spending the morning exploring Deadwood, so up first on the agenda was lunch. Sure there were plenty of options in Wall, but we headed straight for Wall Drug.
The restaurant is located inside their Western Art Gallery, featuring the largest privately owned western art collection in the country. The restaurant offers a wide selection of food options, but their claims to fame are their buffalo burgers, homemade baked goods, and 5-cent coffee.
There is no shortage of things to see and do at Wall Drug though, so make sure to give yourself a couple hours. After eating we strolled into the Wall Drug Backyard. The Wall Drug Backyard is packed with cool things to keep kids (and adults who are young at heart) busy! Tons of photo ops, a water play area, a giant jackalope you can climb, and a huge roaring t-rex!
Once you’ve had your fill of silly fun in the backyard, head over to the shops!
In the shops you can find all sorts of souvenirs: trinkets, art, clothing, Christmas stuff, leather goods, jewelry, western wear, and basically anything else you could want.
These little furry jackalopes were a particular favorite of mine.
Wall Drug is an eclectic and eccentric place, to say the least. I was going to write up the history of it for you guys, but on the Wall Drug website they have their story as told by Wall Drug founder, Ted Hustead. And that’s a much more interesting way to hear how it came to be. So here it is, if you care to have a read. And if not, scroll on down to the next photo to hear more about our experience at Wall Drug!
The Story of Wall Drug as told by Ted Hustead
It was December 1931. Dorothy and I had just bought the only drugstore in a town called Wall on the edge of the South Dakota Badlands. We’d been open a few days, and business had been bad.
I stood shivering on the wooden sidewalk. In this little prairie 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.
Christmas was coming, but there was no snow, no sparkling lights — just viciously cold air. 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. Someone’s going home for the holidays, I thought to myself. I wished they would stop, just for a cup of coffee, but they didn’t. Here on Main Street, no one was out.
When I went back inside, I turned the light off over the soda fountain and joined Dorothy and our four-year-old son Billy in our “apartment”, a room we’d made by stretching a blanket across the back of the store.
I had graduated pharmacy school in 1929, and after two years of working for other druggists, I knew that Dorothy and I had to find our own store. My father had just died, and he’d left me a $3,000 legacy. I’d work with that.
We were living in Canova, South Dakota, when we began our search, covering Nebraska and South Dakota in our Model T. As we searched, 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. And when we talked to the priest, the doctor and the banker, they all told us that Wall was a good place with good people and that 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 the plan, we found them skeptical.
“That town is in the middle of nowhere,” a cousin said, “and 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.”
The first few months went by and business didn’t improve. “I don’t mind being poor, ” Dorothy said to me. “But I wonder if we can use our talents to their fullest here in Wall.”
When Dorothy spoke of talents, my heart sank. My wife had a teaching degree and had taught literature in a Sioux Falls high school. Was I being fair, making her work in this prairie drugstore?
But the next minute Dorothy said, “We shouldn’t get down, Ted. I’m sure we can use our abilities fully here. We can make this place work!”
Dorothy’s optimism lifted me. I said to her, “Five years, Dorothy, that’s what I think we should give to this store. Five good years, and if it doesn’t work by then, we will. ..”
“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!”
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 that I was doing something good. I also studied some veterinary medicine on my own so that I could help out farmers when their stock were ill.
But all of this didn’t seem to be enough. I still spent too many hours looking out the store window for customers who never showed up. I felt I was wasting too much of my life watching people pass by. 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 was I putting them in store for?
One hot Sunday in July, though, a great change swept us up. It started quietly, in the deadening heat of an early afternoon, when Dorothy said to me, “You don’t need me here, Ted. I’m going to put Billy and the baby down for a nap and maybe take one myself.”
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 that kept me awake,” 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.”
“And how’s that?” I asked.
“Well, now what is it that those travelers really want after driving across that hot prairie? They’re thirsty. They want water. Ice cold water! Now we’ve got plenty of ice and 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 & 14. . . Free Ice Water. . . Wall Drug.”
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 old Burma Shave highway signs. Each phrase of Dorothy’s little poem went on a 12 by 36 inch board. We’d space the boards out so the people could read them as they drove.
The next weekend the boy and I went out to the highway and put up our signs for free ice water. I must admit that I felt somewhat silly doing it, but by the time I got back to the store, people had already begun showing up for their ice water. Dorothy was running all around to keep up. I pitched in alongside her.
“Five glasses of ice water, please,” a father called out.
“May I have a glass for Grandma?” a boy asked. “She’s in the car.”
We ran through our supply of cracked ice. I began chiseling more off the block.
“Say, good sir,” one traveler said in a Scottish brogue, “we’re going all the way to Yellowstone Park.
Would you mind filling this jug with your water?”
“Hey this free ice water is a great idea,” said a salesman, sidling up onto a stool. “How about selling me an ice cream cone?”
For hours we poured gallons of ice water, made ice cream cones and gave highway directions. When the travelers started on their way again, refreshed and ready for new adventures, they gave us hearty thanks.
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 good place to call home.
“Well, Ted,” Dorothy said to me, “I guess the ice water signs worked.”
Kinda a long read, but a fun story! Seeing how Wall Drug has grown since its humble depression-era beginnings makes it all the more cool to experience. Onward with my tale!
Not actually in Wall Drug, but across the street, is a shop where you can take Old West photos. It seemed like a fun souvenir, given the gold rush history of South Dakota (like Deadwood).
They had tons of costumes to choose from, and we loved playing dress up and becoming saloon girls!
This became my favorite souvenir of the trip, hands down. The photos came out absolutely perfect!!
Before hitting the road to continue our journey to Badlands National Park we made one last stop in Wall: ice cream!
Well, this post got really long. But there is just so much to see and do in Wall Drug! So if you’re passing through, stop here. For real. There is no better place to make a pit stop in all of South Dakota.
Wall is located in western South Dakota on Interstate 90 at mile markers 109 & 110, 7-miles north of Badlands National Park (just follow the dozens of signs…you seriously can’t miss it)
CURRENT STORE HOURS
Main Store Hours: 7:00am – 7:00pm, Mon-Sun
Cafe: 7:00am – 6:15pm, Mon-Sun
Mall Shops: 8:00am – 6:30pm, Mon-Sun
Pharmacy: 8:30am – 5:00pm, Mon-Fri
Signs indicating “How Many Miles to Wall Drug” can be found all over the world, from Paris to the Taj Mahal to Antarctica. Wall Drug offers free signs and bumper stickers to anyone willing to post them back home or take photos with them on their adventures. These photos cover the walls inside of Wall Drug. So don’t forget to pick up a bumper sticker during your visit and send your photos to firstname.lastname@example.org or use the hashtag #milestoWallDrug!
For more info on Wall Drug, visit their website.