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SLICES OF AMERICA // A store with great P.R.

Published Jul. 6, 2006

Originally, drivers through South Dakota's dusty badlands, most simply passing on their way to the Black Hills and Yellowstone, were lured to a modest one-room pharmacy by road signs offering free ice water, when ice was something special.

"Dad and Mom and I came out here in 1931," says Bill Hustead, president of Wall Drug. "We put up ice in the wintertime. We went out and cut ice out of the dams and rivers and packed it in sawdust. We hauled water from 13 miles down the road. There was no good water around here.

"Nobody had ice water. We had ice water. Drug stores had been giving away ice water for a hundred years, but nobody ever advertised it."

Imaginative signs, such as "Wall Drug, The Store That Put A Wall On The Map," soon went up all the way to the Mississippi River, outside of Billings, Mont., and south of Cheyenne, Wyo., advertising the only drugstore in 6,000 square miles of western South Dakota prairie.

"It was embarrassing. There was nothing here when you got here," says Hustead. "We had outdoor toilets in 1950. Finally we had a stuffed buffalo and a totem pole.

"Then we expanded and expanded and expanded."

Today, Wall, population about 800, might still be considered remote, an hour east of Rapid City, a block from I-90 and eight miles from the entrance to Badlands National Park, a steeply eroded pastel moonscape. Yet cars from virtually every state line the street in front of the famed blocklong roadside attraction _ New Jersey, Florida, Montana, Idaho, Ohio, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Hawaii.

About 280 signs for Wall Drug still grace the roads of South Dakota, with many more along America's roadsides for hundreds of miles. Other signs can now be found on every continent. There is a photo in the store of a sign outside Bien Hoa, Vietnam, reading, "10,659 miles to Wall Drug Store, Wall, South Dakota, USA." In Feldkirch, Germany, one reads, "See the six-foot rabbit at Wall Drug."

The original one-room pharmacy has been re-created as part of a sprawling complex of arcades, cafes, galleries, shops and a traveler's chapel, where three generations of Husteads operate an improbable tourist mecca that attracts as many as 20,000 people a day during the busiest summer months.

Gift shops crammed with goods sell everything from T-shirts, rubber tomahawks and Mount Rushmore shot glasses, to bronzes and original paintings costing thousands of dollars, Indian crafts, pottery, jewelry, rocks and gems, an impressive selection of Western books, posters and prints, boots, harnesses, camping goods and Western wear. Not to mention popcorn, ice cream, donuts, jelly beans and so forth, and all washed down by 5-cent cups of coffee.

Brilliantly, apparently, there is no charge to see a stuffed buffalo next to a 6-foot jackrabbit, several rare mounted "jackalopes," two life-size animated cowboy orchestras, life-size wax figures depicting Wild Bill Hickok's infamous "Dead man's hand," which he held in Deadwood, not too far distant. Stuffed coyotes, bears, deer and antelope are on display, dressed in Wall Drug T-shirts. There is a stuffed bucking horse one can ride and a plaster replica of Mount Rushmore, both in great demand as photo props for family poses.

"Wall Drug is free," says Hustead. "You can see all these figures, a 6-foot rabbit; you can go out in the backyard and stand by the 6-foot rabbit. You can get up on the bucking horse. You can see the Cowboy and the Chuckwagon Quartet. You get a free history of the badlands, a free campground guide. The neatest thing is our Western art, if you're sophisticated enough to appreciate it, and our Western sculpture."

And the signs?

"At one time we gave away 25,000 a year for 10 years. They went all over the world. Also, anybody writes here and says "I'm going to the South Pole, the North Pole,' we send 'em a sign engraved with the mileage on it. We pay the city of Amsterdam for a sign right on the canal for all the American tourists.

"When one of my daughters was at the Sorbonne, we arranged to have a Wall Drug poster put up in 6,000 bars and bistros around Paris and the French Riviera. We advertise on the double-decker buses that service downtown London. I pay the government of Nairobi to have signs in every train station in Kenya.

"We have been written up in textbooks three different times," says Hustead, a registered pharmacist who still fills prescriptions, "because of the dramatic expansions we've had, and we get calls all the time from college students studying the Wall Drug case method. . . .

"We went from a million to $2-million to $4-million. We think we'll gross right at $9-million this year and we have a lot of plans for the backyard. We want to build a kind of mansion-type home to display our best art. A lot of travelers have never seen a mansion."

There was a car with a license plate from Hawaii in the parking lot.

If you go

For further information, contact Wall Drug, Main Street, Wall, SD 57790; (609) 279-2175, or South Dakota Tourism, (800) 952-3625.