Wall, S.D., (pop. 818) may be the only town on Earth known primarily for its drugstore. Wall Drug, which has provided customers with hospitality and free ice water since the Great Depression, has evolved from a small storefront pharmacy to a giant travelers’ attraction.
When Ted and Dorothy Hustead bought the store in 1931, local farmers and ranchers were struggling as drought ravaged the prairie, topsoil blew away, grasshoppers invaded, and people fled. Some nearby towns were swept away by the Dust Bowl winds. But not Wall, which was established in 1907 and named for a towering geological formation south of town in what is now Badlands National Park.
Wall survived the tough times in part because of the Husteads, who, on a sweltering summer day in 1936, posted signs along the highway, offering free ice water to passing motorists. Back then, before cars were air-conditioned, the offer of a cool drink was no small gesture, and thirsty travelers began pouring into the Main Street store.
Now, during the summer, up to 20,000 customers a day step through the doors of the sprawling 76,000-square-foot business, still advertised by signs posted along Interstate 90. Pharmacists Jane Sebade and Dennis Womeldorf dispense medicine, but most visitors come for the free ice water, nickel coffee, buffalo burgers, and souvenirs ranging from wide-brimmed Stetsons to buffalo-chip Frisbees.
Ted and Dorothy’s grandsons, Rick and Ted H. Hustead, run the store, which has evolved into a shopping emporium and, with hundreds of workers, one of the town’s largest employers. In addition to Band-Aids and aspirin, the store features a snarling life-size robotic tyrannosaurus rex, a $2.5 million Western art collection, and a mechanical cowboy orchestra that plays Old West songs.
For local residents, being regularly outnumbered by tourists feels normal. “In the summer, we’re pretty much anonymous on our own Main Street,” says Florence Womeldorf, school counselor and the pharmacist’s wife. But, she stresses, that doesn’t mean Wall ceases being a small town at heart.
Eric Matt, one of 35 seniors who will graduate from Wall High School this spring, agrees. “We’re a small town in a different kind of environment,” he says, explaining that during the summer the town is packed with out-of-town travelers.
And there are quiet times. On winter nights, when Main Street’s mostly deserted, much of the town can be found at the high school gymnasium, cheering on Matt and his fellow Wall Eagles basketball teammates, just as people do in other towns across America.
If a town’s hospitality is genuine, says resident Randall Poste, it’s not something just pulled off the shelf for visitors. Poste graduated from Wall High School in 1972, left for a 21-year Navy career, and grew increasingly frustrated by places he, his wife, Violeta, and their three children lived, where people seemed to have no time for each other. Poste returned to Wall in 1993 so his kids could know a gentler life and a hometown where people feel connected.
“Comparing Wall to bigger places we lived in, there was no decision,” Poste says. “We had to move here.”
Each spring, college students from across the country and around the world move temporarily into 32 houses owned by Wall Drug. The store requires a staff of 235 in summer, more workers than Wall alone can provide. Store employee Malgorzata Glowka, a law student from Poland’s University of Warsaw, loves how Wall welcomed her. She especially appreciates St. Patrick’s Catholic Church’s offer to use its Internet service free, so she can communicate with her distant family.
“People who visit here tell me Wall is different from much of the United States,” Glowka says.
In many ways. Wall takes the comment as a compliment.