The Quirky History of South Dakota’s Wall Drug Store

After originating as a small pharmacy, Wall Drug has grown into one of South Dakota’s quirkiest tourist attractions
After originating as a small pharmacy, Wall Drug has grown into one of South Dakota’s quirkiest tourist attractions | © Wall Drug
Photo of Matt Kirouac
24 October 2018

Established in 1931 as a simple roadside stopover for free ice water, Wall Drug in western South Dakota has evolved into a kitschy mecca of dining, shopping and dinosaur-spotting.

Located just outside of the famed Badlands, this now-bustling town is an immersive and quirky destination that draws more than 1 million annual visitors, and it’s all thanks to pioneering founders Ted and Dorothy Hustead.

‘Gateway to the Badlands’

Wall first took shape as a railroad town for the burgeoning Chicago/Northwestern line in 1907. Not much was there, and the only purpose was to be a stopover for train travelers and visitors to the Badlands. But the town steadily filled in with essentials like banks, a hospital and a hardware store.

Located along the northern perimeter of Badlands National Park, Wall earned nicknames like ‘Window to the West’ and ‘Gateway to the Badlands,’ scoring a position in the developing road-trip market. The construction of the first road through the Badlands helped catapult Wall into local lore and establish now-famous institutions like the Wall Drug Store.

With the development of other South Dakota icons, such as Mount Rushmore, Deadwood and the Crazy Horse monument, more and more travelers were trafficking the area, especially in the summer months. This opened the door for new entrepreneurs like the Husteads.

It all started with a humble pharmacy in 1931 | © Wall Drug

The American dream

As with many endeavors in the 1930s, Wall Drug started with a humble dream in struggling times.

The Husteads purchased a drug store in the tiny town of Wall in the midst of the Great Depression, initially earning little success in its first five years. Living in Canova, South Dakota, while Ted finished pharmacy school, the duo scoured the state in search of a community where they could open a pharmacy. It was important to them that the said community also contained a church, which made Wall a good fit. At the time, however, the town had barely 300 residents, none of whom had the excess income to spend on pharmaceuticals. The couple and their son Billy slept in a room in the back of the store, struggling to entice travelers and earn a foothold in the community.

Finding difficulty in getting drivers to pull over, the couple opted for a guerrilla-marketing approach: advertising free ice water on hand-painted signs along Interstate 90. For thirsty travelers in the summer heat, the tactic worked, and suddenly, the drug store found itself with a steady influx of customers.

Over the years, the number of highway signs grew, extending throughout the state and beyond, just as Wall Drug’s wares expanded from ice water and pharmaceuticals to include more road-trip-friendly fare like donuts, coffee, cowboy boots and Native American goods.

Ted and Dorothy Hustead started enticing travelers to stop by advertising free ice water | © Wall Drug

A place to shop and dine

Expanding off the drug store by building a surrounding mall, Wall contains more than two dozen shops stocked with everything from cowboy boots and hats to jewelry, Native American goods and art.

With nearly 50,000 square feet (4,645.1 square meters) of retail space, the mall contains shops like Calamity Jane’s Jewelry Emporium, Minnetonka Moccasins, the Hole in the Wall Bookstore, and Buckhead western apparel. In addition to boots, belts, hats and jewelry made from Black Hills gold, customers can stock up on staples such as batteries, snacks and, of course, pharmaceuticals. The Apothecary Shop and Pharmacy Museum is a polished replica of the original drug store from 1931 and an operating pharmacy where visitors can still snag over-the-counter drugs, soaps, jars and candles.

To complement the free ice water travelers were pulling over for, Wall added eateries, bars and a soda fountain to the mix as well.

The highlight is the enormous Western Art Gallery Restaurant, which seats more than 500 people in a cavernous dining hall lined with 300-plus oil paintings collected by the Husteads over the years. Family-friendly favorites include hot beef sandwiches, buffalo burgers, pie and fresh donuts. For more sweets, the Soda Fountain Ice Cream Shop fits the bill with nostalgic floats, sundaes, malts and soft-serve cones.

For beer and pub grub, Badlands Saloon & Grille is a must-visit. The casual watering hole serves hearty fare like pizza, burgers, steaks and sandwiches in rustic confines filled with wood paneling, booths and a lengthy bar.

The town contains several motels for weary travelers, along with the Arrow Campground and cozy log cabins at Frontier Cabins.

Wall has become as famous for its donuts as it has its water | © Wall Drug

Jackalopes, dinosaurs and mini Rushmore

Wall Drug sits on the perimeter of the Badlands, a hotbed for dinosaur fossils. In addition to other eccentric sights and activities, dinosaur fossils have helped establish Wall as a quintessential destination for family fun.

Open during the busy summer months, Wall’s backyard contains a menagerie of animals, most of which are fictional or prehistoric. Kids can pose on the six-foot (1.8-meter) jackalope or in front of a massive brontosaurus. A T-Rex roars to life periodically as well. Other photo opportunities include a bronco and a miniature replica of Mount Rushmore.

If free ice water isn’t refreshing enough, kids can splash around at the ‘Train Station Water Show,’ which shoots out jets of water.

Harkening to the region’s geological past, the backyard features a paleontology store with fossil replicas, and kids can even dig for gemstones, gold and makeshift dinosaur bones.

Giant jackalopes and dinosaurs make Wall Drug a hit with families | © Wall Drug

Wall Drug today

The Husteads’ modest pharmacy has come a long way since the 1930s.

With more than 20,000 visitors on an average summer day, Wall Drug has become a South Dakota staple and an all-American pastime in its own right. The ice water remains free, and coffee costs only five cents. Signs and billboards line the highway for miles, along with more than 3,000 signs around the world promoting the town.

Keeping things in the family, Wall Drug is operated by Ted and Dorothy Hustead’s grandchildren, ensuring that the pioneering vision, entrepreneurial spirit and consummate hospitality lives on.

Postcards and signs for Wall Drug can be spotted all across the globe | © Wall Drug

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