Wall Drug: South Dakota's Favorite 'Roadside Attraction'

How Far To Wall Drug? South Dakota's Favorite 'Roadside Attraction'

WALL, S.D. -- Open the Wikipedia page for "tourist trap" and the first image you'll see is a photo of one of the hundreds of billboards for Wall Drug.

At least the magazine Parks & Recreation called it "an original tourist trap." And "Lonely Planet," the travel guide book, lists Wall Drug as a "tourist trap par excellence."

Ted Hustead would like all this to stop. Hustead, 60, a third-generation owner of what he prefers to call a "roadside attraction," insists that a tourist trap is a place where you have to spend money.

"It's very demeaning and untrue when people say that," he added. "We're not pressuring you to stop because your kids want to see some snake pit and then hitting you with a big parking charge and then again with an admission charge. Wall Drug is a free attraction."

Point taken. There's absolutely no cost to entering this sprawling, kitschy, roughly 70,000-square-foot behemoth of a place. But there are plenty of opportunities to lighten a wallet. There is, of course, the free ice water and five-cent coffee advertised on some of the billboards that have made Wall Drug famous.

There are also snow globes and cowboy boots and holsters for real magnum revolvers, to say nothing of the black powder guns sold over the counter. There are t-shirts, books by Bob Woodward and cowboy stories by Will James and -- true to its drug-store roots -- toothpaste.

Mike Huether, the 54-year-old general manager who started working here in high school, said the Wall Drug Donut, a plain cake given away free to veterans and honeymooners, is probably the most popular item. According to Hustead, about 20,000 people per day visit Wall Drug at the peak of summer. He said his roughly 200 employees can feed 1,000 people per hour. Last year's revenue was $11,426,000, excluding gas sales and trailer parking fees. This year is looking like the first down year in recent memory, Hustead said, but he blames the flooding that kept tourists away for much of the summer for that.

All this success is quite a feat for a place that began when Hustead's grandfather, also named Ted, used his inheritance to buy the town's drug store in 1931. Business started off slow until, a few years after getting into the business, Ted's wife, Dorothy, suggested putting a sign on the highway offering free water to motorists.

Suddenly there were visitors, and now there are about 300 signs on highways in South Dakota alone; they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep up all year. Then there's the free advertising all over the world in the form of signs listing the distance to Wall Drug, displayed by fans of the roadside stop. John Thune, the Republican senator from South Dakota, said in an e-mail that he keeps a sign in his Washington office noting that the store is 1,565 miles away.

That's the reach of Wall Drug, a store -- if you can call it that -- unlike most others. The attractions here include a cowboy orchestra, a small water park, and a giant jack-a-lope. But they also include an art collection valued at $2.5 million that holds a work by N.C. Wyeth. Many of the walls here are made of walnut and some of the light fixtures are antique. Such investments are not typical to a "tourist trap," and it starts to make sense that Hustead, the current owner, says the place "isn't a cash cow." Wall Drug has never turned a million-dollar annual profit, Hustead said, despite its high revenues.

He might even have a point about the cost of visiting Wall Drug. Last week, Rose Pogue and her husband were on a road trip for their 30th wedding anniversary. They spent a couple hours here, and left with just a bar of soap in a bright yellow, full color bag that screams Wall Drug.

This post is part of Patch: The Road Trip. Read Arianna Huffington's introduction to the project, and be sure to follow Paul on Twitter and MapQuest.

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