In Wall, S.D., a drugstore that's off-the-wall Western

Its frontier Americana theme has been expanding since the 1930s

November 21, 2006|By Judy Peres | Judy Peres,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WALL, S.D. -- What do Wyatt Earp, T. rex, a flea-scratching hound and a 6-foot rabbit have in common?

Absolutely nothing.

But you'll find them all on the edge of the Badlands, at the intersection of Kitsch and Camp.

Wall, population 800, is a dusty cow town at the geographic center of nowhere. But it draws a million visitors a year, thanks to a drugstore that morphed over the decades into a 76,000-square-foot Western wonderland.

Welcome to Wall Drug, where you can spend an hour or a day among the wacky and whimsical. And where, no matter how long you stay this time, there will always be something new to see the next time you pass through.

That's Teddy Hustead's personal promise.

"Theater is our business, and Wall Drug is our stage," says Hustead, 55.

Hustead is a third-generation owner of the family business established in 1931 by his grandfather, a licensed pharmacist who also was called Ted Hustead.

In those days the business center of Wall consisted of a single block of stores along Main Street. But there wasn't much business going on. Grandpa Ted and Grandma Dorothy endured some pretty tough times, Hustead said. They lived in a room behind the store that was freezing in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer, praying for enough customers to keep food on the table.

One Sunday in the summer of 1936, Dorothy Hustead was trying to take a nap. The clatter of cars bumping over the unpaved road between the Badlands and Rapid City was keeping her awake, and she thought the tourists must be terribly hot and dry.

That was really too bad, she thought, because their drugstore - just a block and a half south of the "highway" - had a big soda fountain and tons of ice. If only they could figure out a way to let those thirsty tourists know.

The first signs - reminiscent of the Burma-Shave signs she remembered seeing along other highways - read "Get a Soda, Get a Root Beer, Turn Next Corner, Just as Near, to Highway 16 and 14, FREE ICE WATER, Wall Drug." At the turnoff was a 12-foot wooden arrow pointing drivers toward the store.

Corny as they were, the signs worked, and carloads of customers dropped in. By the end of the summer, they had signs 15 to 20 miles away. By the end of the 1940s, the signs stretched across South Dakota and into Minnesota and Wyoming.

"It was the perfect marketing plan for the 1930s," said Teddy Hustead, who went to Harvard Business School. "There was a drought, there was a Depression, there was 23 percent unemployment."

Today the serious signage begins 40 miles from Wall, if you're coming from the west along Interstate 90. The first of several dozen proclaim, "Entering Wall Drug Country." Others advertise "Great Hot Coffee 5 Cents," "Ride Bucking Horse (Stuffed)," "Real American Home-Made Ice Cream" and, of course, "Free Ice Water."

When you get there, life-size wood carvings of Wyatt Earp and Buffalo Bill Cody, five stuffed elk, a stuffed longhorn and a totem pole adorn the main street of what looks like an old frontier town.

There are shops selling cowboy hats, jewelry, books, leather goods, homemade fudge and souvenirs. There's a chapel where weary travelers can rest and reflect.

Hustead points out proudly that everything at Wall Drug is authentic. The artwork is original Western art. The leather-goods shop sells real gun holsters, sized to fit your waist as well as your weapon. The dining room is paneled in real American black walnut.

Walk around the backyard you'll find a real tepee, a real horse carriage, a real covered wagon and a passel of once-real animals, now neatly stuffed: a buffalo, a bucking horse, a 6-foot rabbit. What? OK, that one's a joke.

Incongruously, the backyard also includes a caged Tyrannosaurus rex that roars and spouts smoke every eight minutes as lightning cracks reverberate off the walls.

There's the Chuck Wagon Quartette, a diorama featuring a prairie dog that pops out of the ground, a baying coyote and a jackalope - a fantastical cross between a jack rabbit and an antelope.

Another room-size animated attraction is the Cowboy Orchestra that plays (you got it) real folk music while a mangy hound dog scratches his fleas and a life-size tick bites into his shoulder.

In case you're wondering, the residents of Wall don't do their shopping at Wall Drug.

"We're a roadside attraction," says Hustead, "not a general store." But the drugstore still employs a registered pharmacist. And the soda fountain still purports to sell the richest ice cream west of the Mississippi.

Y'all come back now.

Judy Peres writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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