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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.

via Flickr/peterrieke

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.

Why Wall?

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.

via Flickr/Jay Cross and Flickr/Jena Fuller

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.

via Flickr/Richie Diesterheft
via Flickr/m01229

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.

via South Dakota
via South Dakota

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.

via South Dakota
via Flickr/Mike Goad
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6 COMMENTS

  1. We visited Wall Drug in June 2016. We were very disappointed. If you like cheaply made, but over-priced items made in China, then this is the place for you. They did have an alcove selling leather goods and another one selling art that were nice, but the rest of the place wasn’t worth visiting, let alone putting up with the ridiculous crowds.

    • That’s SAD to hear. When I was only knee high to a grass hopper, I thought it was a great place. Wasn’t much Chinese Crap around in those days.

  2. My new bride and I arrived at Wall Drug in July 1962 on our honeymoon cross-country trip from Maryland on our way to San Jose, CA in my Volkswagen Beetle, loaded with everything we owned. We had seen the mileage signs for Wall Drugs all the way starting in Pennsylvania. It was a hot drive-no AC in my VW. And out of the vast prairie rose this little oasis of civilization and cool. We were mighty glad to see it and I am sure the first thing we did was get a glass of ice water. Not a whole lot there then. We pushed on to Ten Sleep, WY for the night at a fish camp cabin. In 2015 we visited Wall again and captured a little of the romance and wonderful memories of 1962.

  3. I wanted to go in but was worried about my dog.i Iwas told no problem, just don’t stop in the restaurant area. Any place that welcomed my dog, especially when it was so hot there was no way she could stay in the car, gets my vote.

  4. My brother and son and I stopped in during a road trip many years ago and really enjoyed it. Was a nice
    respite from driving across the prairies of S.D.

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