Humble beginnings — Photo courtesy of Wall Drug
A sign that promised "free ice water" changed everything for the owners of Wall Drug. And to this day, the iconic sign helps the roadside attraction continue to thrive.
Ted and Dorothy Hustead started the tiny drug store in 1931, during the Great Depression. It might seem like a bad idea to start a business during one of history's largest economic downturns, and for the first five years that Wall Drug was open, it was.
From 1931 to 1936, sales at the Wall Drug in the small prairie town of Wall, South Dakota, just on the edge of the Badlands, were sluggish. But economists say that there are a few things that are depression- and recession-proof – candy, cosmetics and the thing that happened to save Wall Drug: ice water.
One hot July day, the Husteads came up with the idea to post signs advertising free ice water in hopes of attracting drivers who needed a respite from the hot weather. Their marketing ploy to post signs all along Route 16 in South Dakota worked.
Dorothy even created a jingle to "Get a soda/get a beer/turn next corner/just as near/to Highway 16 and 14/free ice water/ Wall Drug." Wall Drug promoted and provided a respite from the summer heat that helped cement its foundation and place in history.
Wall Drug is an American success story thriving on a nostalgic bent. Today, the store welcomes more than a million travelers a year. And as many as 20,000 people visit over the summer. It remains a continuing family roadside attraction, thanks in part to over 3,000 signs promoting Wall Drug all over the world.
Homemade donuts at Wall Drug — Photo courtesy of Wall Drug
Some things have stayed the same since 1931, however. Visitors can still pay a nickel for coffee and indulge in the store's famous homemade donuts and fudge.
But many things have changed, too. Wall Drug has become more than just a pit stop for travelers headed to the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore or Badlands National Park. The store now houses the country's largest privately-owned Western and illustration art collection with 300 pieces.
Art-lovers sometimes visit Wall Drug just to see paintings such as Bronco Buster by Benton Clark and Cowgirls by Penrhyn Stanlaws. The artwork is displayed in a 520-seat restaurant, giving diners the chance to experience classic works while enjoying a meal.
A jackalope in the Wall Drug backyard — Photo courtesy of Wall Drug
Aside from a large art collection and a restaurant, Wall Drug also has twenty-six shops, a pharmacy, a store museum where guests can see what the original Wall Drug looked like, and even a travel chapel, all of which is set on the 76,000-square-foot property.
Drivers coming in and out of Badlands National Park can purchase cowboy hats and boots, as well as Native American goods. Kids can play in a photo-ready backyard with a six-foot jackalope, pan for gold or gemstones and admire a miniature Mount Rushmore up close (the original is located 76 miles away).
The old storefront — Photo courtesy of Wall Drug
There are still billboards along Highways 14 and 16, and now Interstate 90, which was constructed in the late 1960s. The family business carries on with Dorothy and Ted's grandson, Rick Hustead, and Rick's daughter, Sarah Hustead.
"I want us to do what we have always done and improve where we can at every opportunity. My wife Patt and I want to leave the business in the best shape possible for our daughter, Sarah Hustead, to continue the legacy into the 4th generation," said Chairman Rick Hustead.
The town of Wall currently has a population of 800. And Wall Drug has more land to potentially expand its operations, depending on the future business climate.
For now, the ice water is still free.