50 Years After Its First Corny Plug, All Signs Remain Great at Wall Drug Store
updated 05/05/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 05/05/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Situated on the northern edge of the Badlands, a primordial landscape of barren gulches and ghostly peaks largely uninhabited by man or beast, Wall Drug Store in Wall, S.Dak. (pop. 800) is perhaps the world's least likely tourist Mecca. Nevertheless, during the past half-century, the three-generation family business has expanded from a small drug dispensary into a thriving emporium that attracts 20,000 customers on a busy summer day and 1.5 million annually.
Though it does have the unusual distinction of being the only pharmacy within a 6,000-square-mile area, only a handful of those who flock to Wall Drug want a prescription filled. Some come to relive the legends of the Wild West, posing for pictures next to a hand-carved cedar sculpture of Annie Oakley or drawing a six-shooter for a mock gun battle with a hired bad guy. Others come to browse through the 25 shops of cowboy curios, ranging from $2.98 plaster-of-paris rattlesnake ashtrays to $238.95 lizard Tony Lama boots. Still others come to hunker down to a home-style meal—which might include a buffalo burger and french fries ($2.80) and peanut butter pie (95 cents)—or to buy some of the 100 pounds of roast beef and 6,000 homemade donuts that are sold every day at the peak of the tourist season.
"We get few complaints," says Bill Hustead, 58, who manages the $5 million-a-year enterprise. "People can come in here and get entertained without spending a dime, and for a nickel they can get a damned good cup of coffee."
Bill Hustead's father, Ted, and his mother, Dorothy, bought a small drugstore in Wall for $3,000 in 1931, choosing to locate in the dusty little cow town because the local doctor promised to send them a lot of business. It was the depths of the Depression, and for five years the Husteads barely broke even selling ice cream, sodas and an occasional prescription. Ted Hustead, a kindly, white-haired man, who at 83 works eight months of the year, remembers those days well. "I was lost in a dust storm of worries and doubts," he says. "I was ready to give up."
On a hot Sunday afternoon in July 1936, Dorothy Hustead, now 81, was trying to take a siesta when the annoying sound of jalopies rattling by on nearby Route 16A gave her an idea. "After driving across the hot prairie, those travelers must be thirsty," she told her husband. "We've got plenty of water and ice, so why don't we put up a few signs on the highway?" With that, Dorothy penned some doggerel, which Ted lettered on a 12-by-36-inch board: "Get a soda/ Get root beer/ Turn next corner/ Just as near/ To Highway 16 and 14/ Free Ice Water/ Wall Drug."
"It wasn't Wordsworth," Ted says. "But I was willing to give it a try."
The customers multiplied as the signs proliferated. After World War II, a family friend traveling across Europe for the Red Cross took a notion to post a few Wall Drug signs along the way. Then servicemen abroad began writing the store for more signs, putting them up in places as far away as Saigon and Shanghai. Much of the advertising, especially overseas, is free. Even so, Wall Drug spends an average of $100,000 a year for the rent and maintenance of signs, including $7,000 for notices posted on 20 of London's red double-decker buses.
As the legend of Wall Drug spread worldwide, a number of unlikely visitors passed through its doors. Fredric March, who won his second Academy Award for the 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, used Wall Drug as a poste restante on a West Coast to East Coast drive during a winter in the 1950s, popping in briefly to pick up stacks of mail before heading back out into a heavy blizzard. In late June 1961, Ernest Hemingway stopped off on his way home to Ketchum, Idaho after a stay at St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester, Minn. A week after that, he committed suicide.
Still very much a family business, Wall Drug has been manned at one time or another by as many as 20 members of the extended Hustead brood, including in-laws, nieces, nephews and most of the 14 grandchildren. The summer employee list swells to 200, half of them college students from as far away as Maine. To accommodate this extra help, the store uses 18 nearby houses and a mobile home, all of which are owned by the Husteads. In fact most of the real estate in and around Wall is now Hustead property.
"It all proves that no matter where you live, you can succeed," says Ted Hustead, who this year celebrates his diamond anniversary for 60 years of wedded bliss with Dorothy. "What you have to do is reach out to other people with something they need." In some cases, that may be as simple as a cup of ice water.