Wall Drug: An American Experience

I’m back in one of those tourist haunts that helps define the geography of my life. That sounds a lot more romantic than it is. I’m in Wall, South Dakota, at Wall Drug, a strip of western themed tourist trap that is a true tribute to the effectiveness of billboard advertising.

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

When Ted Hustead and his wife moved to the town of Wall to operate their drugstore back in the 1930’s, they latched onto the idea of using billboards to advertise their wares to weary and thirsty passing tourists. If you have ever taken Interstate 90 across the state of South Dakota, you know what I’m talking about. You can establish your relative location in the state by the sheer number of “Wall Drug” billboards that stack up in herds along the freeway.

Selling the goods

The funny thing about it is that it actually works. After 1,200 miles of seeing Wall Drug signs, people become, quite naturally, curious. Even people like me who have driven these roads to see family so many times I can watch the scenery (or sometimes lack thereof) pass through my visual memory with my eyes closed. Familiarly provides no immunity to the lure of Wall.

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

I think this is because Wall Drug, despite all the tourist adverts and schtick, provides things that tourists naturally crave – restrooms and cold liquids and ice cream. That and a nice bookstore and some quality western art. It also provides the myth of the west, with wooden cowboys and gamblers lurking in the halls of the indoor street. The complex has grown over the years, but the core is comfortingly familiar.

My last visit was 15 years ago, and by and large it remains the same. Families roaming the halls, ice cream in one hand, camera in the other. People taking a pit stop before continuing on to Mt. Rushmore or the Badlands. Just as I did on my visit years ago I bought a book, a definite step up from my initial visit when I was small and craved such sundries as cute little dolls dressed as western characters.

Questions raised

There is something plaintive, too, about a place like Wall. It raises questions: How long will tourism last in a tough economy? How long will we even recognize the quaintness of such a place? What does the future hold for a country whose younger generations know only a caricature of the history of the American West?

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

Maybe part of the answer is in that history of the peoples whose collective experiences made the West great. Where ideals of hard work, faith and justice, side by side with hardship and struggle fill in the spaces of the Western Myth of gamblers, claim jumpers, and outlaws.

If you’re in South Dakota and need a cool drink on your parched journey, stop at Wall and contemplate these questions and maybe you’ll be the one to find the answer.

– Amanda Stiver

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3 Comments

  1. I’ve never been through South Dakota myself. There’s a similar experience in Florida that one has driving north from Ocala on I-75 but instead of a quaint and lovely drugstore with tourist-friendly items, it is an endless set of billboards for a sleazy strip bar that I have no interest in stopping at in the town of Green Cove Springs. I suppose that is emblematic of the big difference between South Dakota and Florida, though.

    Reply

  2. We only know this because Wall Drug boasts about it on its billboards. Hundreds of them line the east-west approaches along Interstate 90 in South Dakota, tantalizing travelers with offers of five cent coffee and free ice water, and proclaiming Wall Drug: as seen on Good Morning America; …as seen in People, …as seen in Better Homes and Gardens, etc. (As if Wall Drug needs validation from the media.) There are even a few, widely dispersed, hippie-era survivor signs: Have You Dug Wall Drug?

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