Bill Hustead died last Monday, age 72. Maybe you don't know him, but chances are that you've heard of his business: Wall Drug, in Wall, South Dakota. It's an interesting place; it's a tourist trap and proud of it.
Bill was the son of Ted and Dorothy Hustead. In 1931 Ted and Dorothy bought the only drug store in town -- for that matter, for miles around -- but not many travellers on nearby U.S. Highway 16A stopped in Wall. In 1936, Dorothy suggested that they place signs along the highway, advertising "free ice water". The rest, as they say, is history.
Ted Hustead died earlier this year at the age of 96. His son Bill had been running the store for the past few decades, but with his health failing, he turned the store management over to Ted's grandsons, Rick and Ted.
There The Heck Was Wall Drug
My first visit to Wall Drug was in May 1977, as I was driving from Idaho Falls, Idaho to Groton, Connecticut. I had spent the past seven months in Idaho Falls as a guest of the United States Navy, learning how not to glow in the dark while operating a nuclear power plant. My next permanent duty station was the U.S.S. Alexander Hamilton, SSBN-617, a Lafayette-class Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine whose home port was in Groton.
Anyway, the route from Idaho Falls to Chicago passed through Yellowstone National Park, Cody, Wyoming, Rapid City, South Dakota, and other points east. I had heard of Wall before; strangely enough, it had been a mention in Playboy magazine. (Yes, an article. With words. There weren't any pictures.) That mention, plus the numerous signs that I saw along the way, convinced me that I had to stop.
So, late one Monday afternoon, I pulled into the parking lot of a $7.50 a night motel in Wall. (Yeah, $7.50. Ah, the good old days.) I was tired -- did I mention that I was riding a Honda 750F motorcycle? -- so I crashed early. The next morning I got up at six, and by seven I was at the famous Wall Drug, which was located a whole two blocks from the motel. I had breakfast in the restaurant with the tree in the middle, and several cups of the five-cent coffee.
Then I wandered around the gift shops (there's more than one) and bought a few trinkets for the folks back home, all the while marvelling at the eclectic collection of Old West photographs and art, and not a few stuffed animals on the wall. I've seen touristy places before -- I live not too far from Wisconsin Dells -- but Wall Drug was the best. Everyone to whom I spoke was nice, and that's including the store staff. I didn't find a single buy-the-cheaply-made-in-Taiwan-authentic-Indian-souvenir-and-get-outta-here attitude in the entire place. All-in-all, a great trashy place to visit.
At the time of my first visit, the sign out from still said "Ted and Bill Hustead's Wall Drug Store". When I got another chance to go out West, in the summer of '97, the sign had changed to "Ted, Bill & Rick Hustead's Wall Drug Store", reflecting the addition of Rick to the management of the family business. The store had grown larger, and there were more "kiddie" attractions, like the animated Tyrannosaurus Rex imprisoned behind a Jurassic Park-like containment fence. Every fifteen minutes, the T-Rex would begin a fight to escape, triggering loud warning buzzers and flashing red lights, punctuated by some very scary (if you're a kid) roars. But the people were still the same, and just as nice as they were twenty years earlier.
Yeah, I'm going back again some day. I haven't hiked all of the trails in Badlands National Park, and I have an urge to legally drive at 75 miles per hour.
Bill The Birthday Boy
Just a reminder: only five weeks until the anniversary of Bill Fries' birthday, which is 15 November. You can write to him at P.O. Box E, Ouray, CO 81427-0589; but anything sent to "C.W. McCall, Ouray, CO 81427" will find its way to Bill. He'll be 71 this year.
About "That Wall Drug Song"
Previously, in The Legend-News, I mentioned that I was undertaking my first almost-serious attempt to write a song in the style of C.W. McCall, with Wall Drug as the subject of the song. Well, in light of last week's event, I'm starting over from scratch; the march of history tends to upset the best laid plans o' mice an' men.
Ask me about the song in another month or so.
Surfin' With The Rubber Duck
This week's topic: Wall Drug. If you haven't been there, get going.
- Wall Drug. The official site.
- Wall Drug: Roadside America. If you're still wondering "what the heck is Wall Drug?".
- Tacky Wall Drug toots its own horn on highway signs. An article in the 17 August 1997 Detroit Free Press.
- What's up with Wall Drug. A Paul Gerald column from the 7 September Memphis Flyer.
- Summer jobs near the Badlands. If you're in college, and have an urge to work at Wall Drug next summer.
- Theodore E. Hustead. His obituary in NewScripts, the newsletter of the alumni of the University of Nebraska College of Pharmacy.
- The Whole Desk. On 4 March 1997, Joe had 193 items on his desk, and he has gracious provided pictures of everything.
- Inside: "seven inches to wall drug". A punk rock group; but I have no idea about their connection to Wall Drug.
Song A’ Th’ Week
Red Mountain Pass is still dry today. But when you're up to your patootie in frozen water crystals, you gotta blame someone for the mess; it's the American Way. :)
(C.W. McCall, Bill Fries, Chip Davis)
From the album Wilderness