Driving across South Dakota can be brutal. The state is almost 400 miles from east to west and there is a whole lot of nothing along those 400 miles. Just about the only thing to entertain you are the billboards advertising Wall Drug. In fact, there are 200 billboards for Wall Drug between the border with Minnesota and the town of Wall. Barry Knutson painted most of them and built a business with these billboards.
Dorothy and Ted Hustead started Wall Drug in 1931. Only 326 people lived in Wall, a town devastated by the Depression and continuing drought. At first the pharmacy struggled. But then Dorothy had an idea: put up signs on the highway offering free ice water to travelers. The first series of signs was simple: “Get a soda / Get root beer / Turn next corner / Just as near / Free ice water / Wall Drug.”
That simple rhyme turned things around. The next summer the Husteads had so many customers they hired eight women to help. Today Wall Drug averages 20,000 visitors a day. Although one room of the store is still a pharmacy, themed rooms with everything dear to the heart of a tourist surround it. You need a map, thoughtfully provided, to get around the maze of stores and restaurants.
By the time Tom and I got to Wall Drug (Exit 110) we were ready to stop and walk around. We stop at Wall Drug whenever we drive through South Dakota, and I think the store gets bigger every time. Tom and I parked in the bus parking lot and walked to the store.
We headed to the restaurant first. There are three large rooms off the restaurant, but everyone orders in one place and waits for their order. The restaurant can seat 520 and most of the tables were occupied when we were there. The food is simple but good: buffalo burgers, roast beef sandwiches, and salads. They are famous for their homemade donuts (of course we had one – delicious!). You get an endless cup of coffee for 5 cents and the ice water is still free.
After we ate, we walked around the shops. We checked out the Travelers Chapel, the t-shirts, and the bookstore. Tom checked out the rock store and I looked at the fudge. I was tempted to buy a puzzle but resisted in the toy store. We wandered around in the “backyard” and watched several children get their pictures taken on the giant jack-a-lope. After battling all the people for an hour, we were ready to get back on the road.