What is Wall Drug Store?

A Wall Drug customer rides the mythical jackalope. Photo by Myki Roventine. CC-BY.

A Wall Drug customer rides the mythical jackalope. Photo by Myki Roventine. CC-BY.

I remember going on a road trip during the 1960s from the Seattle, Washington, area to New York. Every few miles along the highway — and I’m talking about for hundreds of miles — there’d be a sign advertising the Wall Drug Store. Some of them were clever — if you’re old enough, you may remember the old Burma-Shave signs, where a series of signs told a very short story with a punchline at the end — while others were more mundane. But the point is that they were everywhere — so, of course, we stopped. It was more than a drugstore, a tourist trap to beat all tourist traps. I don’t say this in a disparaging sense: It was a great place to buy souvenirs, enjoy a meal and basically enjoy 1960s American kitsch, including an electro-mechanical cowboy band. And, yes, you could buy pharmaceuticals there as well.

Thanks to road beautification laws, the plethora of signs for Wall Drug no longer dot the countryside, although some can still be found (there’s one not far from my home, several hundred miles away), especially along Interstate 90. But Wall Drug is still there, and as I found out during a recent visit, it hasn’t changed all that much. Oh, it is larger, having become a shopping mall of sorts, but it still has the flavor of a roadside attraction of the ’50s or ’60s — and the electro-mechanical cowboy band is still there.

Wall Drug had its start during the Depression when it was purchased by Ted and Dorothy Husted. To attract travelers, they started advertising free water primarily to those who were driving to nearby Mount Rushmore. It worked. Soon visitors were encouraged to take Wall Drug signs of their own, and they were posted all over the world, even Antarctica. The highway past Wall eventually became Interstate 90 and a popular east-west route from Chicago and the East Coast to and from Seattle. Today, although Wall, S.D., has a population of only 800 people, thousands of people visit the drugstore each day, and it is one of South Dakota‘s most-visited tourist attractions along with Mount Rushmore and nearby Badlands National Park.

Today, Wall Drug bills itself as a 76,000-square-foot “shopping emporium” and “wonderland of free attractions.” Most of them have a Western theme — you’ll find Western clothing and art as well as products and displays that tie in to the region’s mining history, and there’s a Jackalope outside. A restaurant seats more than 500 people — and the water is still free. And, of course, you’ll find souvenirs galore ranging from the elegant to the tacky.

Wall Drug is located at exits 109 and 110 off Interstate 90. It is open year-round, although it’s far busier in summer.

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