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When you think of South Dakota, which do you think of first—Mount Rushmore or Wall Drug? While Rushmore and its carved quartet of U. S. presidents is awe-inspiring, many of us recall road trips through South Dakota marked by ubiquitous billboards and bumper stickers announcing the state’s most kitschy attraction—Wall Drug. So what is it exactly and is it worth a stop? We took a quick detour to the long-standing attraction to answer those questions and more.

RELATED: 8 reasons your next trip should be to South Dakota

Wall Drug, South Dakota

Wall Drug, South Dakota | Coemgenus at English Wikipedia

What is Wall?
Wall is a small town off I-90 in western South Dakota founded by the Chicago/Northwestern Railroad in 1907. Its current population, 876, supports an estimated 2 million annual visitors who travel through town each year en route to Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Yellowstone National Park and other interesting sites out west. During a busy day, Wall sees as many as 20,000 visitors.

RELATED: 100 amazing National Parks experiences you must try

What is Wall Drug?
In short, it’s the place that made Wall famous. Pharmacist Ted Hustead bought the town’s drugstore in 1931 and named it Hustead Drug. But this was during the middle of the Great Depression and Hustead’s then 4-year-old son Bill would later remember that he was afraid that if the business foundered, he would be put up for adoption. But it didn’t.

In 1936, the national monument, Mt. Rushmore, was under construction close to Rapid City, but as Bill’s grandson Rick Hustead explains it, tourists drove right past Wall to get to Mt. Rushmore. But Hustead’s wife Dorothy had an idea. It was July, it was hot, and traveling conditions left people dusty and in need of refreshment. “Ted,” said Dorothy, “We gotta let people know we’re here.”

Photo courtesy of Wall Drug

The Hustead’s original advertising campaign included a jingle written by Dorothy and an offer of free ice water. The name was changed from Hustead Drug to Wall Drug because Dorothy thought it was catchier, and business began to improve.

In 1951, Ted’s son Bill returned to Wall. Now a military veteran and also a pharmacist, Bill wanted to turn his father’s drugstore into something fantastic. “He had a vision,” says Rick.

Under Bill’s management, Wall Drug expanded to include a 300-piece original oil western art collection (with works by N. C. Wyeth and Harvey Dunn), shopping center and a mining/panning experience for tourists, for starters. It now covers 76,000 square feet. Rick can only estimate how many people visit Wall Drug annually: “I’m sure it’s over a million,” he says.

ALSO: Wall Drug may offer free water, but with Orbitz Rewards you’ll earn discounts off your favorite hotels.

What happens at Wall Drug?
Visitors have a lot of options. The ice water is still free, coffee is 5 cents a cup and donuts are made fresh, every day. “In South Dakota, we are famous for our donuts,” says Rick. Military veterans are invited to have free coffee and donuts when they stop by.

Photo courtesy of Wall Drug

If you’re in the mood for more food, try out the Western Art Gallery Restaurant (also called the Café), which seats more than 500. Here you’ll find hot beef sandwiches and burgers. You can also visit the seasonal Old Fashioned Soda Fountain. Ice cream is made in house, in eight different flavors.

Want to do some shopping? Step into one of the many little stores that are connected inside the large Wall Drug buildings. The wooden floors have a hollow, historic ring to them as you walk down the aisles perusing books, jewelry, pottery and boots. Don’t forget the pharmaceutical part of Wall Drug—there is still a drugstore here, with pharmacists on duty during the day.

When should I visit?

Photo courtesy of Wall Drug

Wall Drug has tens of thousands of customers in the summertime, but the number of visitors dwindles in autumn and winter. “[From] December to March, we’re a small town drugstore,” says Richard.

Wall Drug opens at 7am regardless of the season, but closes at 10pm in the summer, 8pm in autumn and 5:30pm in winter.

Tagged: Midwest, National Parks, South Dakota

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