By Sarah Laskow / Atlas Obscura
August 04, 2015
Jennifer Kirkland 2012
| Credit: Jennifer Kirkland/ Flickr

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."

Credit: 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.

Credit: 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.

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