Friday, September 4, 2015

Wonderfully Wacky Wall Drug

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.

Wall Drug

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.

Wall Drug
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.

Wall Drug
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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  1. What a fantastic idea, back then, of advertising free ice cold water. I love ice cold water, especially on a hot day, and having seen the sign, I would be salivating for that cold water. The fact that it was free would just be the icing on the cake so to speak. It is amazing that it has turned out to sell so many things today. What a great story.

  2. I've heard of Wall Drug before but wasn't quite sure what it was other than a drug store. Looks like a very fun place for kids!

  3. These are my favorite kind of roadside attractions. Any old drug store gets a stop if I am nearby but Wall Drug may be king of its kind! Great post!

  4. That is so kooky!! Don't you love it?!

  5. I love the marketing idea of the original owners to offer free iced water to entice customers - and it still works today. Offering a great stop to break up a long road trip.

  6. What a great story of how they started. Now that is clever marketing

  7. Sounds like the quintessential American road trip! Love it! Thanks for the #wkendtravelinspiration.

  8. I'd love to see this place. I always enjoyed our stops on our trips to TX from CA as a kid. There was a Trading Post we used to stop at and we always stopped at Stuckey's, but Wall's seems just amazing. Thanks for sharing.

  9. LOL! I went to Wall Drug as well last year on our epic Western road trip. Those signs were everywhere and we felt we had to go. Then we had trouble getting our kids out of there -- it's like a giant mini-mall with souvenirs and stuff to buy everywhere. Along with random collections on the walls that you can't help but stop at. Definitely an entertaining rest stop.

  10. Fun review. I was there briefly last summer. Would've loved to see more of the place but we were on a short time limit, driving the car across country to relocate. Great place to hang out and the kitsch is overwhelming, but fun. Nice to meet as part of the Linkup.

  11. Wow, $0.05 for a coffee is unbelievable! Seems like a cool place to feel like you've stepped back into a different period of time and have some fun!

  12. This brings back memories. This place is a hoot. There is nothing to stop at along the highway anywhere near it so as you read all the signs on the drive you begin to realize "yes, I am going to stop there" Thanks for the post.

  13. What a fun place to stop! And what a stroke of genius that was to offer free iced water. The simple marketing ideas are often the best.


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