Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Driving through South
Dakota, it's impossible to avoid Wall Drug. The billboards start before
you even enter the state, and they're arrayed, hundreds of them, alongside
I-90, for more than 400 miles. They lure you like a tractor beam, and whether
you intended to or not, by the time you reach Wall, odds are that you're going
to stop. Billboards are the reason Wall Drug Store exists. Back in the
1930s, when the Hustead family was trying and failing to eke out a living
running a small drugstore in the tiny town of Wall, Dorothy Hustead had a
flash of inspiration: They would give out free ice water, and they would
advertise it on boards flanking the highway. It worked. The ride through
South Dakota, in the summer, is long and hot, and the promise of a cool drink
brought customers. Ice, too, was something of a luxury. "When they first
started operating free water, they were cutting the ice in the winter, and
storing the blocks of ice between layers of sawdust in an ice house," says
Rick Hustead, Dorothy's grandson and the current chairman of Wall Drug. "When
my dad was little, he had an ice wagon, and he would take blocks of ice and
sell them to people to put in their ice box. " The billboards kept the drug
store in business, doing well enough, even, to expand to a bigger space in the
1940s. But it wasn't until 1951, when Bill Hustead, Rick's father, returned
home as a registered pharmacist that Wall Drug started growing into a kitschy,
comforting mecca of roadside Americana. Hitchhiking during the war, Bill
would tell his rides he was from Wall, and they'd recognize it, as the home of
"that little drug store with all those signs. "  But Bill wanted the
business to be better than a little drug store, to be something spectacular.
"Bill had a vision for the drug store," Rick Hustead says. "That people, when
they stop at Wall Drug, they won't be disappointed. He expanded everything. "
jvoves/ Flickr Today,
Wall Drug is no longer a little drug store with a lot of signs. It's the
ultimate rest stop, where you can get coffee, donuts, buffalo burgers, cowboy
boots, cheesy Western paraphernalia, and, yes, ice water. You can sit on a
rabbit-deer hybrid called a jackalope, pose as a pioneer, or visit with a
dinosaur. But the first secret of Wall Drug is still the billboards. "We
advertise heavily," says Hustead. "That's how we started in business and
that's how we stay in business. " But, he says, "Once people get here, we try
to deliver. We don't want them to be disappointed. " In the summer, the
day at Wall Drug begins with cooks coming in at 4:30 a. m. to start making
Wall Drug donuts, and the other food the store will serve that day. There is
still a drug store at Wall Drug, but it's one of the quieter corners of the
business. "Travelers, when they come to Wall Drug, they want to be able to
get something to eat," says Hustead. "They want clean restrooms. They want
to look around. Maybe do a little shopping. Wall Drug is an experience. "
A tour might start in the restaurant. It seats 530 people, and it serves
simple food, with a twist: Hot beef sandwiches are popular; so are buffalo
burgers. Sarah German/ Flickr
One unusual attraction of the restaurant is that it's hung with a
collection of more than 300 original paintings, worth millions of dollars, by
Western artists including Andrew Standing Soldier, Harvey Dunn, and N. C.
Wyeth. Bill Hustead had good taste: he bought most of the art before it was
worth as much as it is today. "We couldn't put together today the collection
we have," says Rick Hustead. "Bill was kind of drugstore cowboy. He was a
pharmacist. He liked to ride horses. He had a taste for it. "  Bill
Hustead also felt very strongly about the donuts. In the 1950s, he went to
the West Coast to learn how to make them; he bought a donut machine; the
recipe evolved over the years. (They come in maple, vanilla, and chocolate. )
He told Rick that Wall Drug could never run out of donuts—that Wall would
always offer free coffee and free donuts to military veterans, and, for that
reason, they would always need them on hand. This originally appeared on
atlasobscura. com. For the rest stop's annual sales and a peek around the
backyard, head over to Atlas Obscura. More good reads from Atlas Obscura:
• The History of Vending Machines Goes Back to the 1st Century
• See Ravishing Photographs of Cuba Taken by Cuban Greats and Magnum Pros
• 7 Gorgeous Sea Maps from the Age of Exploration Did
you enjoy this article? Share it. Driving through
South Dakota, it's impossible to avoid Wall Drug. The billboards start
before you even enter the state, and they're arrayed, hundreds of them,
alongside I-90, for more than 400 miles. They lure you like a tractor beam,
and whether you intended to or not, by the time you reach Wall, odds are that
you're going to stop.

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