|South Dakota's #1 Roadside Attraction|
Wall Drug Store starts announcing its presence miles and miles before you get there. All along Interstate 90, billboards proclaim things like "291 miles to Wall Drug," "Refreshing! Free Water, Wall Drug," or "#1 Roadside Attraction, Wall Drug." I had been planning on visiting, but I will admit that seeing the "Homemade Donuts, Wall Drug" sign got me particularly excited.
So what exactly is Wall Drug? Back in 1931, it was a languishing pharmacy in the small town of Wall (population 326), named after the Wall rock formation in the nearby Badlands of South Dakota. Plenty of cars sped by the town, but few stopped to do business there. Desperate for customers, the owners hit upon the idea of advertising Free Ice Cold Water one hot July day. The husband, Ted Hustead, felt a little silly putting up 12 x 36 inch signboards along the highway, but by the time he returned to the store, his wife, Dorothy, was already busy rushing around, chiseling ice and pouring glasses for the newfound customers that started showing up. As long as they were in the drugstore, visitors bought ice cream cones and other sundries, too. Nowadays, Wall Drug serves up to 20,000 people a day during the summer. The ice water is still free, although it's self-serve from the soda machine.
Over the last 80 years, the little store has grown to encompass an entire block along Main Street, the block behind it, and the alley in between — a maze-like 76,000 square feet total.
The primary route across the state moved a few miles away, so the Husteads put up a giant, 50-ton dinosaur along the new interstate to catch people's attention and direct them to exit for Wall Drug as a place to take a break from the road.
|Huge dinosaur looking over Interstate 90 Exit 110|
I've been to other highway reststops, but none can compare to Wall Drug. This is no place to spend a mere 15 minutes to stretch your legs before you dash off. There's so much to explore! You can do it cheaply by enjoying the free ice water, posing for photos on the displays in the Backyard, and doing a little window shopping.
|Go West, young man|
I have never seen so many souvenirs in my life. My kids brought tons of tchotchkes and trinkets to my attention. Two-halves-of-the-same-heart lockets to share with a best friend, rubber band shotguns, whoopee cushions, water globes, Founding Fathers shot glasses, refrigerator magnets, postcards, personalized pocket knives... the list goes on and on. We could satisfy all our gift shopping at one stop. Want a memento but short on money? Pick up a free Wall Drug Sign or bumper sticker.
|Rare sighting of the Giant Jackelope native to the Badlands|
There's nicer items, too, like Black Hills gold, Native American artifacts, and Western art at the Wall Drug Mall. The bookstore has a rather extensive collection of Western fiction and non-fiction. I browsed through cowboy hats, leather boots and beaded moccasins. Have a spare $1600? You can purchase a bronze sculpture by Frederic Remington while you're there.
|This T-Rex roars to life every 15 minutes.|
If you don't feel like shopping, there are plenty of activities, especially for kids. We offered up Wall Drug as a reward for good behavior during our exploration of The Badlands, and the kids made sure we kept our promise. The free Train Station Water Show in the Wall Drug Backyard obviously cooled off lots of children as they splashed in the water sprays on the hot July afternoon we visited.
If you're willing to spend a few quarters or dollars, there's even more to do. Singin' Sam can play you a tune on his piano for the right price.
|It's Singin' Sam.|
In the Back Yard Mine, you can pretend to be an ole prospector and pan for gold or sluice for gemstones. Do you fancy yourself to be just as good as any gunslinger from the Wild West? Head over to the Shooting Gallery next to the Video Arcade to test your aim.
|Time for target practice|
On the other hand, if what you seek is solitude for a little quiet reflection and a word of prayer, there's a Travelers Chapel patterned after one in Iowa built by Trappist monks in 1850. It stood empty while all the other areas of the store teemed with visitors.
|The Travelers Chapel|
If you're hungry, the soda fountain serves homemade ice cream. A donut factory graces one side of Wall Drug while a Fudge Shop can be found in the Wall Drug Mall. Need to stay awake while behind the wheel? A cup of coffee is a mere 5 cents, just as the roadside signs promised, and all you have to do to pay is drop a nickel in the wooden box. I like how trusting and old-fashioned that seems.
|5 cents for a cup of coffee|
After a day of exploring the Badlands, we were ready for dinner before driving back to Rapid City. Pizza Parlor? Hot Beef Sandwiches? More ice cream perhaps? We settled on eating in the counter service Cafe where we were surrounded by over 300 original oil paintings which Wall Drug says is the one of the biggest private collections of Western Art in America. By the counter stood a 187-year-old cedar tree trunk that had been carved into life-size versions of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. After robbing a bank in Montana of $250,000, they and the Hole in the Wall Gang took a shortcut through the Badlands on their way to St. Louis.
|Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid |
(not quite Paul Newman and Robert Redford, but they'll do)
The kids definitely enjoyed exploring this roadside attraction. Who would have thought that a few glasses of Free Ice Water would turn into all this?
For current store hours, see the Wall Drug Website.
What's Your Favorite Roadside Attraction?
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