My wife and I were recently in a local steak house and on the wall was a sign that read, “Visit Wall Drug.” There are probably many people today who have no idea what that sign is all about or what Wall Drug is. Back in the 1960s it didn’t seem to matter where one traveled, you ran into “Visit Wall Drug” signs. I even remember seeing one on the side of a double-deck city bus in Greenock, Scotland in 1961.
The story behind Wall Drug is a story of marketing genius. In the early years of the Great Depression a young pharmacist named Ted Hustead took his last dime and bought a drug store in a very small, very impoverished, and very remote town in Western South Dakota. The town, Wall, is far enough off the beaten path that travelers on the main highway rarely stop by. So Hustead conceived the idea to put a sign at the intersection of the main highway and the road to Wall announcing free ice water could be had in Wall at Wall Drug. It was just the ticket and his business began to prosper.
I suppose the next thought occurring to him was, well, if one sign worked, why not thousands of signs? In the intervening years Hustead hired agents all over the nation to post his “Visit Wall Drug” signs as well as giving a free sign to the store’s visitors. Many of the signs contained the distance to Wall Drug in miles. Eventually there were so many signs around the world, including the polar ice caps, that someone joked about future archaeologists concluding that Wall, SD was the most important place in North America.
Today if you travel across Interstate 90 through the Southern portion of South Dakota you will encounter countless roadside billboards proclaiming the wonders that await you in Wall. Upon your arrival you will still be offered a free cup of ice water and/or a nickel cup of coffee, just as in days gone by. What you won’t experience is Hustead’s original drug store. In its place stands a huge tourist trap replete with large fiberglass dinosaurs, jack rabbits, and something known locally as a jackalope which is claimed to be a cross between a jack rabbit and a pronghorn antelope.
You’ll also find restaurants, souvenir shops, gift shops, clothing and leather shops, game arcade, a saddle shop, a candy store, an ice cream parlor and you’ll even be able to get a prescription filled in the Wall Drug pharmacy.
Wall Drug is just one of the “have to” tourist sites along I-90. You also need to stop in Mitchell, SD and at least drive by the Corn Palace and nearer the Wyoming border they might shoot you if you don’t visit Deadwood, where Wild Bill Hickok drew his famous “dead man’s hand” of aces and eights.
Deadwood is the port of entry to the Dakota Badlands and Black Hills. Other famous area sights are the Chief Crazy Horse Monument and Mount Rushmore. If you still haven’t had enough drive a few more miles and visit Sturgis, where all the bikers make an annual pilgrimage, and then on into Wyoming to see Devils Tower, made famous by the film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
That Wall Drug even exist today, let along flourishes, is a wonder. With all the big slickly packaged attractions like Disney World, Universal Studios and 17 Flags over Someplace, competing for the tourist dollar it’s kind of soothing to know that there are still people willing to ask, “Where the heck is Wall, SD?” and then go looking for it.