If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home. This week we’re headed to South Dakota, home of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, famous Lakota Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, and that big statue you might remember from Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
The Strange States series has highlighted a lot of odd roadside attractions—including The Thing in Arizona, Indiana’s giant ball of paint, and a museum in Missouri that features nothing but hair—so we’d be remiss not to mention one of the original tourist hot spots in America, Wall Drug.
The story of Wall Drug begins in 1931 when Ted and Dorothy Hustead moved to the small town of Wall, S.D. Using part of a $3000 inheritance he’d received from his father, Ted bought out the local pharmacy and began serving the community of 230 people. Business was slow until 1936 when the Mount Rushmore monument became a patriotic vacation destination.
In the days before air conditioned cars and the establishment of the Interstate Highway system, weary travelers were always on the lookout for someplace to stop for a drink and a chance to get out of their bumpy cars, especially while traversing the lonely, hot plains of South Dakota in the middle of summer. So Dorothy had the idea of putting up hand-painted signs along Route 16A leading to Rushmore advertising free ice water at Wall Drug. Before Ted had even returned to the store from putting out the first batch of signs, 30 people were already lined up at the counter enjoying their free water, but also buying five cent cups of coffee, sodas, snacks, and other road trip frivolties. The roadside signs became a signature hook of Wall Drug, and by the 1960s, at the peak of the summer vacation era, there were over 3000 signs spread out over every state in the Union.
Despite the nationwide name recognition, Wall Drug was little more than a small pharmacy, snack pit stop, and souvenir shop until the 1970s, when Ted handed the business over to his son Bill. Bill expanded the business to a sprawling 76,000 complex with dozens of ways to entertain travelers.
Today, there’s a mock diamond mine where youngsters can don hard hats and pick axes, then sluice for precious gems or fossils. The replica Old West train station and its splash fountains is a big hit in the summer. You’ll also find a fiberglass Jackalope wearing a saddle that’s large enough to climb on, as well as a few bucking bronco statues, all of which have become popular photo ops.
If you need a bite to eat, Wall Drug has an ice cream and soda fountain, a fudge shop, a donut factory, and a cafe with a full menu of hot meals. Perhaps you’d prefer a latte or an espresso while you browse the “Largest Private Western Art Collection in the Country,” filled with hundreds of paintings and statues in the gallery.
Naturally, you can buy souvenirs like t-shirts, beer koozies, and trucker caps, but the stores inside also carry wall-mounted Jackalopes, Black Hills gold jewelry, Native American artifacts, and Bobbleheaded celebrities. And, believe it or not, there is actually a working pharmacy inside, where you can get a prescription filled while you’re on the road.
To add to the circus atmosphere, there are a host of animatronic wonders, including a cowboy orchestra and a Tyrannosaurus Rex straight out of Jurassic Park. And speaking of dinosaurs, you can’t miss the 80-foot long bright green Apatosaurus with blazing headlight eyes that calls to cars on nearby Interstate 90 like a lighthouse in a storm.
It’s estimated that nearly 2 million people visit Wall Drug every year where they can still get free ice water and a five cent coffee, as well as just about anything else their heart may desire in the middle of nowhere South Dakota.
Read all the entries in our Strange State series here.