August 2017 – One of the most famous landmarks we visited on our South Dakota RV trip wasn’t a National Park or stunning natural feature. Instead, it was a plain ol’ drug store that opened in 1931 and has grown exponentially ever since, garnering a reputation that now spreads far and wide!
The southwest corner of South Dakota is home to Rapid City, the second largest city in the state with a population of 68,000, as well as the charming small town of Custer City, the beautiful Black Hills National Forest, Custer State Park, the motorcycle mecca of Sturgis and Badlands National Park.
In between these jewels, the land is open rolling prairie, and the view from the highways, especially I-90, are lovely.
After seeing rolling yellow-brown hills, hay bales and cows for 15 minutes, though, the views do get a bit boring. Occasionally there is something really pretty that’s worth grabbing the camera to capture, but how many grassy hills, hay bales and cows do you really want to see?
However, for RVers and all other drivers, the monotony is frequently broken up by billboards advertising Wall Drug.
These signs are spaced every few miles, and they herald all kinds of fabulous things that you’ll see if you get off the highway in the town of Wall and make your way to Wall Drug Store.
Back in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression, a young couple named Ted and Dorothy Hustead bought the drug store in the small town of Wall (then pop. 326) on the edge of the South Dakota Badlands.
He had recently graduated from pharmacy school, and they were looking for a small town with a Catholic church so they could attend mass every day and raise a family in a wholesome setting.
Their story (link below) speaks of a different era when a young couple contemplating relocating to a new town would go and talk in person with the town banker, the priest and the local doctor.
Using $3,000 they had inherited from Ted’s father, they bought the store and moved into an “apartment” in the back of the store that was partitioned off with a blanket.
Ted’s cousin had told him that Wall was “just about as Godforsaken as you can get,” and that it was “in the middle of nowhere” where “everybody…is flat broke busted.”
But Ted and Dorothy liked the feeling of the town, and they decided to give their dream a try for five years.
By July of 1936 their five year trial period was nearing its end, and they were just about flat broke busted. The Dust Bowl was in full swing, the Great Depression was as deep as ever, and they now had two children to support.
With such a tiny population out in the middle of nowwhere, there was little to bring people to this remote part of the country in those days, so their only customers were their fellow flat broke neighbors.
Nearby Mt. Rushmore had been under construction for nine years but was still five years from completion, and the Interstate highway system which would eventually bring them I-90 wasn’t even a twinkle in the government’s eye.
The only road connecting Wall to the outside world was Routes 14 and 16A, and there was nothing in Wall to pull passersby off those roads and into downtown.
Yet when Dorothy laid down for a nap one hot July afternoon, she couldn’t fall asleep because of all the noise the Jalopies were making out on Route 16A as they rattled down the road to Badlands National Monument (not yet a National Park), the Black Hills and Yellowstone.
As she laid there, she suddenly realized how she could lure all those drivers off the hot dusty highway and bring them into their tiny store — with free ice water!
She told Ted her idea and they quickly made up a series of signs to put out on the highway:
“Get a soda …” “Get a root beer…” “Turn next corner…” “Just as near…” “To Highway 16 & 14…” “Free Ice Water…” “Wall Drug”
As soon as they had pounded those signs into the ground along the highway, customers began showing up at their drug store.
Where the tiny town of Wall had been empty of cars and people moments before, now there were Jalopies parked all over the place as tired, thirsty, dusty travelers stopped in for free ice water and then bought other refreshments too.
The little town of Wall and its humble drug store suddenly got a new lease on life, and this young couple’s simple dreams were fulfilled — and then some!
I first heard about this unusual drug store from Mark’s tales of his motorcycle ride across country in the early 1970’s. He and his buddy saw the signs for miles and miles. They had never heard of the store, but after seeing all those signs, they just had to stop in.
There wasn’t a whole lot there, but it was a fun and funky little pit stop.
Now, some eighty plus years after the first Wall Drug signs went up, Wall Drug signs can be found all over the world. One rather dated newspaper article I found on a wall indicated there are over 3,000 Wall Drug signs worldwide!
We weren’t sure what we’d find when we got to Wall Drug Store, but we got off of I-90 to go have a look.
The town of Wall is still very small, although it has doubled in size since the 1930s and is now home to 766 people. But the Wall Drug complex is immense and is much more than just a drug store.
The Wall Drug complex takes up a city block and includes an indoor mall filled with all kinds of classic tourist trap stuff. Across the street, there are even more tourist shops.
The Disney-like tourist atmosphere is fun for kids and families looking for ways to entertain them. Seeing all those kids scampering around on the various little rides and statues in the courtyard, we couldn’t help but join them, and before I knew it Mark was up on the Jackalope saying, “Take my picture!”
There were lots of gimmicks inside too. Every so often we kept hearing this loud roar and noticing flashing lights at the far end of a hallway. We wandered down there and found a dinosaur that would come to life every few minutes. He’d gnash his teeth, wag his head and roar.
The Wall Drug Store highway signs had ended, but inside we found a wall full of newspaper and magazine articles that continued the promotion and told the story of Wall Drug.
The little idea of free ice water has come a long way in eighty years, and the mall-like interior of the complex was filled with curious tourists.
The signs on the highway don’t lie, and we found free ice water available in a water station in the courtyard. Wall Drug also still honors its highway signs for free coffee and donuts for honeymooners as well as five cent coffee for everyone else who wants to grab a cup.
Of course, there are lots of places to sit down for a full meal or grab a snack on the go.
Several walls are also filled with photos that tell the history not only of Wall Drug Store but of Rapid City, South Dakota, the Badlands and the settlers and Indians who lived in this area long ago.
One photo in particular caught my eye. It showed Wall Drug Store back in the early days, long before the arrival of the outdoor fountain and jackalope and automated talking cowboys and rocking western wagon rides for the younger set.
A replica of Wall Drug Store can still be found inside the mall.
The tourist shops sell lots of souvenirs for RVers too, and we got a kick out of them. There were some very cute hand towels featuring old style travel trailers:
And there were lots of Happy Camper t-shirts and hats as well.
Wall Drug isn’t a destination for spectacular western scenery or authentic western anything, but it’s a hoot and is well worth a stop for RVers heading to Yellowstone, Devils Tower, or the Tetons, if for no other reason than to get a free cup of ice water and be able to tell your friends you’ve been there and done that!
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More info about Wall Drug:
- History of Wall Drug – Official Website
- RV Parks and Campgrounds in and around Wall, South Dakota – RV Park Reviews
- Location of Wall Drug Store – Google Maps
Other blog posts from South Dakota:
- Fall River Balloon Festival in Hot Springs, South Dakota 01/19/18
- Badlands National Park – Rugged Beauty on a South Dakota RV Trip 09/21/17
- Solar Eclipse 2017: Time-Lapse Videos from the South Dakota Badlands 08/21/17
- Sturgis Motorcycle Rally – Wild and Free in South Dakota’s Black Hills! 08/10/17
- Custer South Dakota Highlights on an RV Trip 08/06/17
- Custer State Park Burros & Bison – Close Encounters of the Animal Kind 07/31/17
- Custer State Park Wildlife Loop Road – Where the Animals Are! 07/26/17
- Black Hills National Forest, SD, RV Boondocking – Camping with Cows! 07/11/17
- An Old Time Country 4th of July – Custer, South Dakota 07/08/17
- The “Right to Vote” is a PRIVILEGE Some Nomadic RVers Might Lose 02/14/16
- Black Hills, SD – Mt. Rushmore and More 09/29/07
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