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Most people have probably never heard of Wall, South Dakota… yet roughly 2 million visitors stop by each year. It’s all thanks to one man and one simple, but totally genius idea: free ice water. This is the legend of Wall Drug.
Wall Drug’s humble beginnings
Back in 1931, Wall was a town with a population of about 230. Most of its residents would describe it as “the geographical middle of nowhere.” That all changed when Ted Hustead came to town. The pharmacist was looking for a town with a drug store for sale and a Catholic church where he could move his family, and Wall fit the bill. He was a few years out of school, and with an inheritance from his father in hand, Ted was ready to make his own way.
Not surprisingly, business was slow for the first few years. Many farmers in town were hit by the Depression and were struggling themselves. Ted was on the verge of giving up on Wall. But, it was his wife, Dorothy, who came up with the brilliant idea to bring in customers by advertising free ice water to tourists on their way to the newly opened Mount Rushmore. The stroke of genius came as she was trying to nap in their home. But, jalopies rattling along Route 16A kept her awake. She wrote a little poem in the style of those classic Burma Shave ads, and Ted put them up the next day.
The legend of Wall Drug Store was born that day. Wall might have been in the middle of nowhere, but it was on the way to a lot of somewheres. People driving to Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, and, eventually, the Badlands and beyond were soon buying ice cream cones to go with their ice water.
Lightning rarely strikes twice, but free ice water wasn’t the only marketing innovation Ted and Dorothy became known for. On a trip to London, Ted had the idea to put up a sign saying that Wall Drug was only 5,160 miles away. Anyone who wrote to them would receive free information about South Dakota, the Badlands, and, of course, Wall Drug. This prompted a dozen or two letters to the store a day. Ted landed an interview with the BBC, and it launched another advertising phenomenon. You can find “How Many Miles to Wall Drug” signs all across the globe, from Kenya to Antarctica and everywhere in between. Wall went from being the middle of nowhere to the Heart of American Tourism.
The legend of Wall Drug lives on
Of course, as Wall Drug grew, it began to offer more than free ice water and ice cream. In fact, the store is a bona fide shopping mall now. There are stores inside that sell pottery, posters, Western oil paintings, jewelry, T-shirts, taxidermy, and all manner of souvenir tchotchkes. There are multiple restaurants inside, serving everything from hot coffee and fresh donuts to bison burgers. And, of course, there’s the backyard. A splash pad, gold mining, little rides, and kitschy photo ops galore are the absolute best reasons to stop by Wall Drug. Pose for a photo on their giant Jackalope statue, meet their massive apatosaurus, and revel in the retro fun of it all.
Of course, some things will always stay the same. You can still get yourself a “How Many Miles to Wall Drug” sign, and coffee still costs 5 cents. And, yes, ice water will always be free.