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In South Dakota, the Road Signs Lead To the Wall

Salena Zito on

WALL, South Dakota -- Everything about Wall Drug, arguably the most iconic and long-lasting drugstore in America, exemplifies a doggedness. It took persistence to not only survive, but also thrive against insurmountable odds in a place few thought a small business had any business starting an enterprise in the first place.

In 1931, when Ted Hustead and his wife Dorothy were looking for a place to open a drugstore, he picked the thinly populated town of Wall because the local doctor told them he'd give them all his prescriptions, so he told the local paper years later.

Despite all their hard work, though, most of their potential customers passed their little prairie town along the highway, rarely noticing the store.

The Husteads' dire future all changed one hot summer night when Dorothy Hustead could not sleep. Irritated that the parade of cars along U.S. Route 16 was keeping her awake, she wondered: How could they make those people at least stop at their store and maybe buy a thing or two?

Out of that mild irritation came a plan: Plant signs along the highway offering free ice-cold water to weary travelers. And not just any signs, but clever ones like the humorous Burma-Shave signs that were famously posted all along small highways in the 1920s.

Her idea was both simple and genius. More importantly, it worked.

 

Within a year, they went from no employees to eight; the roadside signs went from a handful to hundreds of billboards. And today, Wall Drug is a 76,000-square-foot, multimillion-dollar slice of Americana where you can still get your prescription filled, but you can also get handcrafted moccasins, divine homemade doughnuts, out-of-print books on the American West, cowboy boots, clothing, ice cream, Western art, homemade pies and bumper stickers. If they don't have it, it's probably not made.

Those original signs, once handmade, have become thousands of nostalgic, colorful billboards that dot the prairie beginning before you depart Iowa or Minnesota for South Dakota. Those signs are so ingrained in our culture that soldiers during World War II and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan planted the "Free Ice Water at Wall Drug" signs everywhere.

For many of those soldiers, those signs symbolized everything they loved about home and America.

Wall Drug's success has not just been limited to itself. As it grew and prospered, so did the town; there are now more than 400 motel rooms in Wall, several bed-and-breakfasts and some motor-lodge cabins and campsites.

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