How many miles to Wall Drug?
August 4, 2015 12:50 PM   Subscribe

An hour and a half east of Mount Rushmore, and four hours west of Sioux Falls, you'll drive by Wall, South Dakota, population 800 or so. 84 years ago, the population was 326 people, but it was located on Interstate 90, so there was steady traffic of people driving past the town, even in the Depression. Wall Drug Store was just another quiet shop run by Ted Hustead, who watched all the traffic drive right on by, until his wife Dorothy hit upon a big idea: put up billboards telling people they could stop in and get free ice water. This is the origin of Wall Drug's fame, putting the store on the map.

You'll see signs for Wall Drug for hundreds of miles around Wall, SD, and there are official signs all over the world, from Amsterdam and Scotland, and other folks have put up their own signs elsewhere around the globe. At some point, Ted said "We've probably spent a million dollars for advertising," but that's years ago now, as Ted passed away in 1999. That year alone, the family spent $300,000 a year on signs.

When I-90 bypassed Wall in the late 1960s, the Husteads hired Emmet Sullivan to craft them their own roadside dinosaur to pull people in off the interstate. But even at this point, Wall Drug was little more than a small pharmacy, snack pit stop, and souvenir shop. It wasn't until Ted handed the business over to his son Bill in the 1970s that the business expanded to a sprawling 76,000 complex with dozens of ways to entertain travelers.

Now Wall Drug is much more than a drug store. The pharmacy is still there, but it's one of the quieter corners of the business, next to the restaurant full of original western art, where you can still get a fresh donuts and 5 cent coffee. Really, this roadside wonder is part mega gift shop, part amusement park, large enough that you might be better off reading the map (PDF) before wandering inside.
posted by filthy light thief (44 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I stopped at Wall Drug. As I'm fond of saying, after 300 miles of billboards, you can't not stop there. They were early masters of FOMO. I really enjoyed it - grade A roadside culture. I got the 5-cent donut and coffee deal.

I think it was while there I learned that the kicker is that every drugstore at the time would give you free ice water at the counter. The only thing Wall did differently was to advertise it. American genius.
posted by Miko at 12:54 PM on August 4, 2015 [11 favorites]

I have a friend who was living in SD for a while for grad school, and (he tells me) upon making the pilgrimage to Wall Drug, immediately sought out the pharmacy section so that he could proudly proclaim that he "found the Drug Wall at Wall Drug"
posted by kagredon at 12:54 PM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I too have been to Wall Drug. The place was huge and sold more or less everything. They still had free ice water of course.
posted by zachlipton at 1:08 PM on August 4, 2015

Growing up as I did in the Upper Mid-Waste, I went to SD often. Dinosaurs!, hot springs!, wind caves! Missle Silos! And I loved going to Wall Drug. Those summer trips out there were the best.

A few years back I took my wife there for the first time. I didn't tell her anything about it, just that we would be stopping to check it out. She was amazed, and she loved it. She gets a real kick out of kitschy stuff like that.

If you want to go, I *highly* recommend you avoid the area during the Sturgis bike rally. Also, go on a weekday, but pretty much any time in the summer it will be packed anyway.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 1:10 PM on August 4, 2015

I had never heard of Wall Drug before we set out on the road trip, but by the time we got there, we'd seen a millino billboards and of course we had to stop in. It did not disappoint.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:10 PM on August 4, 2015

Those dinos! THOSE FUCKERS WERE HOT! nevermind the terribad 80s fashion....
posted by symbioid at 1:14 PM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think it was while there I learned that the kicker is that every drugstore at the time would give you free ice water at the counter. The only thing Wall did differently was to advertise it. American genius.

From the origin story of Wall Drug, they were chipping ice off of a block, so in this area, it seems they were still getting block ice from somewhere. I'm sure at some point everyone could give away ice water, but was that true in 1936? This article on The Impact of Refrigeration and the Wikipedia article on refrigerators makes it sound like that was the cusp for home and small commercial refrigerators.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:19 PM on August 4, 2015

I was just there about two weeks ago. Complete mayhem inside, although I found one quiet little shop that sold an amazing amount of small-print books regarding western and indian history.

If I didn't need to get the rugrats to Rushmore pronto I would have browsed there for an hour or two.
posted by JoeZydeco at 1:19 PM on August 4, 2015

And don't forget The Corn Palace!
posted by symbioid at 1:20 PM on August 4, 2015 [12 favorites]

This reminds me of the Billboards for Stuckey's when I was a kid. We would drive past the first of many billboards out in the middle of nowhere: "Only 34 miles to Stuckey's". Then we passed many more, spaced about every 1-3 miles. Each one taunted us weary travelers with promises of gas, food, clean bathrooms, toys(!) and souvenirs only x long miles away. At 5 miles it was "You're getting closer...". At 3 miles it was "You're almost there." At 0.5 miles it was "You made it! Stuckey's is just ahead on the right!"

After our long odyssey, our seemingly endless trek, I was rewarded for my patience with bad food, a dirty bathroom and crappy souvenirs. Stuckey's was a shithole and I felt cheated.

There is a silver lining, though. The power of billboards over me was broken forever that day. That was the day I learned that all advertisement is some form of lying or another.
posted by double block and bleed at 1:25 PM on August 4, 2015 [6 favorites]

I went there about ten years ago. In a weird way, actually going to Wall Drug wasn't as much fun as seeing billboards for it for hundreds of miles. Unlike the Corn Palace, which was great.
posted by teponaztli at 1:25 PM on August 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

August 2001, and I am driving solo from Ottawa to Vancouver via the USA Interstate system. Starting not long after I cross the South Dakota border on I-90, I see my first Wall Drug sign. "Weird," I think to myself, "Why would a drugstore put up billboards?" In time, with more signs every few miles, it becomes clear that there is more to Wall Drug than just drugs. Well before I am halfway across South Dakota the sheer volume of the messaging starts to piss me off, an unwelcome intrusion into my thoughts, which had been my only company in the two days since I left Chicago. More Wall Drug signs pass and I resolve that no matter the enticements I read, there is no way in hell I will be getting off to visit Wall Drug.

I begin to curse out loud at the signs as I approach them now, but at the same time I come to expect them, to need them. Driving through the open, endless prairie, these signs speak to me, a siren's song luring me into a den of touristy consumption.

I get closer to Wall and the signs become more frequent, more descriptive, more insistent. I want to go but I hate that I want to go. The exit approaches and the signs realize they have done their work and soften their approach:

Just Ahead
Wall Drug

The last sign says simply
Wall Drug

It passes. I have resisted. I have a feeling of joy within me, as if I have climbed a mountain. I am surrounded by the beauty of the Prairies I had stopped noticing, so all-encompassing was my obsession with Wall Drug. The road bends.

Last Chance
Exit 109
Wall Drug

Two exits. Two exits for a nowhere town. I scream obscenities into the unlistening grasslands.
posted by cardboard at 1:31 PM on August 4, 2015 [20 favorites]

Stuckey's was a shithole and I felt cheated.

Stuckeys were... Well, I was going to agree, but actually, they tended to be old-school gas station + Dairy Queen, at least in Kansas, which back in those days was a cut above a regular gas station because it meant I got ice cream.

Anyway, Wall Drug is pretty good, as its sort of thing goes. I bought a pretty good hat there once.
posted by brennen at 1:35 PM on August 4, 2015

So this is the Western version of South of the Border? Caliente!
posted by saturngirl at 1:35 PM on August 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

When I was last there (one a road trip, obvs) it was in the right place to stay for the night so my girlfriend and I got a room at a cheap motel about a block from Wall Drug. Went to a bar that had dollar beers and two dollar burgers. Met some young people that worked at wall drug, they were from all over the world, one was Aussie, another from Israel. I guess they lived in Wall Drug housing and were there for the summer and it was quite the fun scene.

The bartender showed me a picture of the time the neighbor from Home Improvement stopped by for a beer. That was his one celebrity sighting.
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 1:48 PM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, as sprawling and unabashedly tourist trappy as this place is, it doesn't suck. For example, my now-wife and I are pretty obsessed with cowboy boots, and their boot shop is one of the nicer I've been in. Normal prices, excellent brands, and genuinely competent sales help (the guy that helped me was from Berlin and was working a summer job and just loved cowboy boots and the whole Western thing, it was pretty fun).
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 1:53 PM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I hadn't heard of the place before I started seeing the billboards, so I had no expectations to be let down. The place is like pure distilled essence of USia - a convenience store with its own chapel, animatronic dinosaur exhibit, and Western-wear outlet.
posted by XMLicious at 1:54 PM on August 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Heck yes, where else are you going to get your buffalo chip frisbee?
posted by Esteemed Offendi at 1:58 PM on August 4, 2015

Stuckey's was a shithole and I felt cheated.

Aw, I loved Stuckey's. Drinks with crushed ice, air conditioning (when we had none in the family car), endless cedar "hillbilly"-themed souvenirs, those invisible-ink puzzle books, and, if you were lucky, fireworks. I admit that my Stuckey's experience was probably earlier on in its run, and I know they did go downhill in some huge family dispute.
posted by Miko at 2:05 PM on August 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

84 years ago... it was located on Interstate 90

I'd just like to take a moment to point out that there was no Interstate 90 eighty four years ago.
posted by wotsac at 2:16 PM on August 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Two exits. Two exits for a nowhere town. I scream obscenities into the unlistening grasslands.

And then you exited and went to Wall Drug, right?
posted by teponaztli at 2:18 PM on August 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

Okay, go to Wall Drug ONCE and then every other time you're on 90 in that part of South Dakota you should take the Badlands Loop instead. Skip the chaos and enjoy one of the most scenic drives in the US.
posted by Elly Vortex at 2:21 PM on August 4, 2015 [12 favorites]

When I moved from Seattle back to Boston, I packed my pickup truck up with enough to camp in my new abode and drove east, primarily on route 90. I stopped at some motel in Wall and woke up early and stopped in to Wall Drug in the early morning before some of the major attraction parts of it were open. But I had a bite to eat and some free icewater and picked up a book on some niche history of the US West. Got a bumper sticker, and I think I had a t-shirt, too.
posted by rmd1023 at 2:37 PM on August 4, 2015

In the late 90s, some friends and I decided to take a quiet, scenic vacation to SD. We happened to pick Sturgis motorcycle week. No matter how far into the mountains we went, we still could hear Harleys. We skipped Wall Drug that trip.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:43 PM on August 4, 2015

When I moved from Madison, WI, to Seattle in 2004, I got caught in an epic snowstorm about mid-way through South Dakota. My plan had been to make it to Rapid City that first day, but after watching car after car veer off I-90 and tumble into the ditch, I decided to pull off at the first exit I found ... which was Wall. The next day, the snow was still falling, I-90 was closed (they literally had barriers across the entrance ramps), and I was stranded. I hiked from my hotel into town, and Wall Drug was the only business open. I picked up some provisions and a souvenir "Wall Drug" coffee mug with my then-newborn son's name on it, and then holed up in the hotel for 2 more days until the roads were open again. I drank coffee from that "Wall Drug" mug just yesterday.
posted by majorsteel at 3:58 PM on August 4, 2015 [6 favorites]

I went to Wall Drug because they advertised in the Village Voice.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:45 PM on August 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

I love Wall Drug. My then boyfriend and I stopped there on a road trip back from a wedding in Colorado to where we lived in Illinois. The free bumper sticker I chose was "HAVE YOU DUG WALL DRUG?"

Our itinerary included
Swetsville Zoo, Ft. Collins, CO
Carhenge, Alliance, NE
Dinosaur Park, Rapid City, SD
Crazy Horse
Mt. Rushmore
Wall Drug
The Corn Palace, Mitchell, SD
Jolly Green Giant, Blue Earth, MN

That stretch of the heartland is weird and delightful.
posted by MsMolly at 5:06 PM on August 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

This place is on my bucket list.
posted by SisterHavana at 5:20 PM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

And don't forget The Corn Palace!
The Corn Palace is in Mitchell. But it is worth a look.
posted by Nerd of the North at 5:20 PM on August 4, 2015

One of my favorite stories:

August of '99, I was on a road trip from Toronto to Seattle with a couple of friends, traveling through the northern states, with a cloud of weed smoke trailing behind. They had told me about the tongue in cheek billboards...but I didn't think much of it, because I was just trying to survive the non-stop trip.

Needing a break, my companions and I decided that we should take in some of the sights in South Dakota and Wyoming. We would go to the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Devil's Tower....but before all of that...we would stop off in Wall.

As we approached the place, we noticed that there were packs of motorcyclists traveling along with us, and the amount of hard core riders was increasing. Having driven through Quebec during many summers in the '70s and early '80s, I didn't think it was that unusual to see so many Harley Davidsons. Until we got to Wall, that is.

It was then that we discovered that the world's largest motorcycle rally was being held not more than an hour's drive away in Stugis, and it seemed that every bad ass hog on two wheels had the same idea as us...stopping to get a free glass of ice water in Wall.

When we arrived, Wall was wall-to-wall bikes. Lines and layers of motorcycles parked all along the souvenir strip. And with them, the hundreds of riders in their leather clad, tattooed, bearded glory.

I honestly can't remember what is in Wall...although I know I saw trinkets and fridge magnets. But what I really remember seeing were clouds of bad ass riders making noise for it's own sake, herds of terrified out of state tourists wondering what they had parked themselves in the middle of, and best of all: the weary local citizens, eye-rolling through that magnificent mess.
posted by In The Annex at 5:53 PM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

My parents were avid RV'rs and travelled a lot both before and after my dad retired. They had a great cat who was leash trained, travelled everywhere with them (she had more milage that the three vehicles they had gone through) and had her litter box in a nook in the RV. It was plastered with travel stickers and bumper stickers, and you guessed it, one of them was "Have you dug Wall Drug?"
posted by antiquated at 5:59 PM on August 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you want to go, I *highly* recommend you avoid the area during the Sturgis bike rally.

Nah. We just went on Saturday (first day of Sturgis) and it was great. Drove our 36 foot RV down the main street being INCREDIBLY careful not to tag any of the front wheels sticking out and cause one of those Movie/comedy moments where the entire row of a hundred bikes keels over like dominos. Bikes everywhere and less than 2 feet of clearance at some points.

It was fun. We also dropped by the Corn Palace the next day and saw tons of bikes there too. We watched a group of hairy arsed bikers taking a selfie (with a selfie stick!) and they were delighted with their picture with an 8 foot corn statue dude thing (Cornelius).

We first put 2 and 2 together and noticed the bikes (in a 'OH there must be a reason for so many bikes' kind of wasy) first the previous Thursday (coming up out of Rawlins SD) as we were heading vaguely towards Sturgis and did the "Um... is it Sturgis week?" discussion. Then Mount Rushmore was jammed with them, as was pretty much anywhere else. We stopped at a place 300 miles east of Sturgis for the night (in Mitchell) and Sunday morning wasn't 'hearing lots of bikes go past' as much as it was actually just one continuous Harley noise with no gap to speak of between bikes. Constant from when I woke up at 7am to about 200 miles east several hours later. We saw an average of 15-22 bikes per minute driving past us on just one highway to Sturgis (not including all the ones in trailers).
posted by Brockles at 6:35 PM on August 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Those dinos! THOSE FUCKERS WERE HOT! nevermind the terribad 80s fashion.... posted by symbioid at 4:14 PM on August 4 [+] [!]

Note: Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, not Wall Drug
posted by achrise at 6:48 PM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I remember going in '68 when I was about 10. The anticipation was killing us. And our mother was having a ball because remembered it from her childhood (only 50 miles to go)!

Only Rock City can compare in terms of widespread panic.
posted by cleroy at 7:36 PM on August 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Ah man, wall drug is just the best. A note for any visitors, you're going to see a large jewelry store covered in 'clearance' and 'going out of business" signs that sells all sort of Black Hills Gold stuff. Be cautious, that place has been 'closing' for about 20 years now. Those are not sale prices, those are normal prices for black hills gold. Check out the rock stores too, they have local agates, and black hills agates are pretty sweet.
posted by neonrev at 8:45 PM on August 4, 2015

Badlands National Park is gloriously weirdly beautiful, and if you are staying near there for a week Wall Drug becomes your coffeeshop and pharmacy, where you go when you need a new memory card for all your photographs, just a familiar stop on the way back home from a long hike except with dinosaurs. My exceptionally ugly photoshopped animal commemorative mug with a jackolope inside is one of my prized possessions.
posted by velebita at 9:06 PM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

In the late 90s, some friends and I decided to take a quiet, scenic vacation to SD. We happened to pick Sturgis motorcycle week. No matter how far into the mountains we went, we still could hear Harleys. We skipped Wall Drug that trip.

I lived in Sturgis, went to highschool in Sturgis, and worked various places at the rally because the vendors always paid decent cash under the table and that was awesome as a teenager, and the sound of the bikes was just something you tuned out... but now, having lived elsewhere for years and gotten used to not having to deal with the rally, I would take the sound of a yowling cat scraping its claws across a chalkboard while a crying baby mangles a violin solo over the sound of a single loud bike in a heartbeat.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:21 PM on August 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

I spent some time growing up in SD, but I live in Los Angeles now. A "Where the heck is WALL DRUG?" bumper sticker has gone on every car I've ever owned. Just last week I was getting some gas when a nice young man came up just to say hello and shake my hand because he was from Yankton, SD and there aren't too many Rushmore-staters around these parts. Unsurprisingly, we also had some acquaintances in common.
posted by Dokterrock at 11:18 PM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

You are totally posting about a big part of my childhood. My family used to drive from Great Falls, Montana to Omaha, Nebraska to visit relatives every summer when I was a kid. My brother came with, because there are pictures of us at our grandparents ' house, but once my sister was born, I don't think we made the trip any more. Anyway, we stopped at Wall Drug so many times and I remember the Burma Shave signs on the way into town, the dinosaurs in Rapid City, (I dared to climb on one) and visiting the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore, as well. Once there was an off the beaten path visit to the aforementioned Corn Palace, as well. Thanks for the memory jogger!
posted by Lynsey at 11:35 PM on August 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

We were in South Dakota this summer and camped near Wall Drug. We didn't actually go to it and I've come to regret it.
posted by damnitkage at 5:33 AM on August 5, 2015

Are we there yet?
posted by thelonius at 9:46 AM on August 5, 2015


Oh, we are? Sorry. Yes, we're there.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:44 AM on August 5, 2015

I actually made an unscheduled stop at a Stuckey's while on a road trip simply because I'd seen a billboard with a 68-foot-tall picture of a brownie sundae on it. However, I happened to be seated at a table next to a family with three kids who were so obnoxious that I skipped dessert just to get away from them.

Moral: screaming kids defuse the power of billboards.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:41 AM on August 25, 2015

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