I decided to devote Day 5 to Badlands National Park, but on the way, something told me I had to stop in the small town of Wall, South Dakota. That something was a billboard, and there wasn’t just one of them, there were hundreds. Free ice water, free coffee for veterans, authentic western boots, donuts, t-shirts, breakfast, lunch, dinner — it was all waiting at Wall Drug Store.
Wall Drug is Wall, South Dakota. With the possible exception of the grain elevators, everything else on Wall’s Main Street is there, because of the “drug” store. If a business isn’t part of the Wall Drug complex, it’s some sort of souvenir shop designed to get a hold of your money, before Wall Drug does.
Wall Drug takes up most of two city blocks. The main road in front of the complex is extra-wide, to allow for a third row of parking spaces in the middle of the street.
[tmt_info =””]You will be thoroughly indoctrinated with the history of Wall Drug during your visit, but what the heck, I’ll go ahead and fill you in. Wall Drug started as an actual drug store — one tiny little shop on Main Street. In 1931, Ted Hustead used a small inheritance and his skills from pharmacy school to buy the business and make it run. After five years, the business wasn’t great, but Ted and his wife Dorothy had survived. One hot summer day, as Dorothy tried to take a nap (but kept being awakened by the noisy vehicles on the highway, a few blocks away) she had an idea. The store needed signs, advertising snacks, soda, and ice cream, posted along the main road. The hook would be a promise of free ice water. They posted the signs, business started booming, and the rest, as they say, is history.[/tmt_info]
Wall Drug is a strange collection of various tourist attractions and stores, all stuck together in a conglomeration that leaves you wondering where you should go next. The “mall” (pictured above) is a corridor lined with clothing, art, and souvenir shops, as well as a chapel and a pharmacy “museum”, which sells replicas of old pharmacy items.
Hang a left at the end of the mall, and you end up in another part of Wall Drug — a very large souvenir shop, where there are more attractions, such as…
… Ted Hustead’s Cowboy Orchestra. This has got to be the saddest example of animatronics I’ve ever seen, but it has kitsch, and the Hustead family has made a lot of money off kitsch.
Head out the back of the main complex, and across the alley, into the “backyard”. Here is where you will find the “original” ice water well that Ted Hustead used to re-hydrate all those early tourists. Nowadays, the “well” dispenses tap water, which during my visit, was decidedly not ice-cold.
The backyard has several good photo-ops, including the chance to ride a jackelope — the half jackrabbit, half antelope creature that roams the plains.
Inside another building, behind the “backyard”, there are more stores, as well as a hands-on gold panning exhibit for the kids, and a Jurassic Park-themed dinosaur, who comes to life and roars every so often. I swear, I actually overheard an adult say, “It’s roaring! It only roars once every ten minutes, hurry!” Hey, at least it was more impressive than the cowboy orchestra.
Later in the day, after my visit to the badlands, I considered returning to Wall Drug for dinner, but I arrived too late, and had to settle for some other family-style restaurant off one of the interstate exits.
I did, however, get a chance to visit the 80-foot tall dinosaur that stands at exit 110. The big concrete Apatosaurus draws a little extra attention…
… to one final Wall Drug sign for westbound travelers (just in case 500 other signs didn’t quite do the trick).
Forgive me for jumping ahead to the end of the day. Let’s rewind to morning once again, as we continue on to the Badlands, as well as another little-known tourist attraction, that’s in the middle of nowhere for a very good reason.
Note: This trip was first published in 2008.