America’s most famous roadside business, Wall Drug (510 Main St., 605/279-2175) began with free ice water. Ted Hustead bought this tiny South Dakota town’s drugstore in 1931, and for five years Ted and his wife, Dorothy, struggled to survive during the depths of the Depression. Then Dorothy had a brainstorm: Hundreds of people drove past Wall every day on US-16, the main route across South Dakota, battling the dusty dirt road and 90°F summer heat. Why not give them an excuse to stop? Once in the store, maybe they’d buy an ice cream, or an aspirin.
So in the summer of 1936, Ted Hustead erected roadside signs to tempt travelers off the highway and into his store. Spaced at intervals along the highway, like the famous Burma-Shave ads, the signs read:
GET A SODA
GET ROOT BEER
TURN THE CORNER
JUST AS NEAR
TO HIGHWAY 16 AND 14
FREE ICE WATER
Before he could return to the store, the tourists were already arriving. And they’re coming still: some 20,000 per day in the summer—well over a million a year. Proud South Dakotans have covered foreign landscapes with signs proclaiming the mileage to Wall Drug, and the Husteads themselves have advertised on London buses, Amsterdam canals, and French bistros. Before the 1960s era of “highway beautification” banned most billboards, Wall Drug touted its free ice water on 3,000 billboards in all 50 states.
But what’s waiting at the end of all those billboards?
Originally, not much, apart from that glass of water. But today’s 50,000-square-foot Wall Drug is a different story: It can feed, clothe, and entertain the entire family for hours. Photo opportunities abound, thanks to the 80-foot-long dinosaur, 6-foot rabbit, giant fiberglass jackalope, Mt. Rushmore replica, a restaurant-café seating more than 520, and shops for everything from postcards to cowboy boots. A younger generation of Husteads still runs Wall Drug, the ice water is still free, and the coffee still costs a nickel. Drop in sometime!
Wall Drug is at the center of Wall, South Dakota (pop. 766), just north of I-90 exit 110. Apart from Wall Drug, one other reason to visit is the chance to tour the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site (605/433-5552, daily, free), off I-90 exit 131. The silo and control center are accessible only on the popular guided tours, so sign up as soon as you know you’ll be here.