Roadside Attraction: Wall Drug Is a Success Story Rooted in the Catholic Faith

The South Dakota landmark has been welcoming travelers since 1931.

The Hustead family has owned and operated the famous landmark since 1931. Ted and Dorothy settled in Wall, South Dakota, after making sure daily Mass was offered at the local parish, St. Patrick’s.
The Hustead family has owned and operated the famous landmark since 1931. Ted and Dorothy settled in Wall, South Dakota, after making sure daily Mass was offered at the local parish, St. Patrick’s. (photo: Courtesy of Wall Drug;, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Wall Drug is an epic story of American ingenuity: A failing business turns into one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions through hand-painted signs offering free ice water. Today, more than 2 million visitors a year take Exit 110 off Interstate I-90, drawn in by signs leading them to the 76,000-square-foot Wall Drug extravaganza. At its core, however, is a story of the Catholic faith. 

In 1931, Ted Hustead and his wife, Dorothy, bought the pharmacy in Wall, South Dakota, with a $3,000 inheritance. It fit what they were looking for: a small town with a Catholic church offering daily Mass. After ascertaining that the town had a doctor to write prescriptions, the couple went to see Father John Connolly, who had founded St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in 1919. Satisfied to learn there was daily Mass, their next visit was to the bank. They took ownership of the 1,500-square-foot drugstore with a soda fountain, curtaining off the back for living space for themselves and their 4-year-old son, Billy.

The town was small — population 326 — and times were hard. The Great Depression added to a prolonged drought in the region. 

But even in good times, most travelers on dusty Route 16A saw no reason to stop in Wall on their way to the Badlands and the Black Hills. (It would be 10 years until the completion of Mount Rushmore, 77 miles away.) One hot July Sunday in 1936, after five years of just scraping by, Dorothy considered all the passing cars on the highway: They must be as hot as she felt. That’s when inspiration struck: What if they put up a sign on the highway offering travelers free ice water? Ted knew a high-school student who was good at lettering, and the boy’s father cut up some boards for signs. Ted put up a couple of signs. “Cars were turning in before we got back,” he is quoted as saying in The Wall Drug Story. “It worked like a charm.” For hours they poured gallons of ice water, made ice cream cones and gave highway directions.

“I would have stopped there,” Dorothy had said. “That’s as far as my thinking went, but he went sign crazy.” 

“GET A SODA … GET A ROOTBEER … TURN NEXT CORNER … JUST AS NEAR … TO HIGHWAY 16 & 14 … FREE ICE WATER … WALL DRUG,” was the first of many clever promos that Ted began putting up on signs far and wide. He even began taking out ads for signs in such faraway places as Paris, in the London Underground, in Africa and in front of the Taj Mahal, always including the number of miles to Wall Drug.

It ignited publicity. By the time Bill grew up, the fame of Wall Drug had spread. The signs grew more frenetic as you drove closer: “Only Five Minutes,” “One Mile,” “One-Half Mile,” “Turn Right.” 

“Ted was a promoter,” Bill’s son, Rick Hustead, now chairman of Wall Drug, told the Register. “If one sign had good results, what would 20 do?” 

Business flourished. In 1942, the family moved into a 3,000-square-foot building. Bill became a pharmacist, married Marjorie and came back to work in the drugstore. “If people were going to come from all over to see a drugstore, Bill wanted it to be worth their stop,” Rick said. 

Bill expanded the business to the 76,000 square feet it is today, with a series of western-style storefronts. The soda fountain is part of the restaurant that seats 530. Free ice water, five-cent coffee and homemade donuts are still promoted. There is an art collection, bookstore, around 100 pieces of taxidermy, a western-style shopping mall, a travelers’ chapel modeled after a Trappist monastery, a picnic spot and a splashing area, a roaring dinosaur in front of a miniature Mount Rushmore, a giant jackalope visitors can climb on — and so much more. 

Amid the flurry of growth, the Catholic faith remained important to the Husteads, who sent their children to Catholic schools. After Bill died on Oct. 4, 1999, at the age of 72, Rick found a finger rosary in his car that inspired him to also pray the Rosary, often daily praying it with his mother, Marjorie, until her death in May 2021.

Ted and Dorothy had four children, and Bill and Marjorie had seven. Rick was Bill and Marjorie’s oldest, and his brother Ted also went into the family business. Rick eventually bought out other family members’ shares to became sole owner. His daughter Sarah Hustead — fourth generation — is vice president of Wall Drug. 

“My grandfather had an incredible vision for what the store could look like,” Sarah explained to the Register. “My goal is to preserve the heart of what my great-grandfather, grandfather and father put into the business, improving the quality while maintaining their vision. I believe that vision was from God, and I want to stay true to that.” 

She said that something her dad told her once has stuck. “He said, ‘I don’t think of myself as an owner. I think of myself as a steward of the drugstore.’” Sarah continued, “We are called to be servants, and I want to serve and honor the business. Bill was gifted with a very majestic vision, and it’s a lot to maintain. On a busy summer day, we see 22,000 [visitors] in a day.” Sarah said she feels honored to be a part of such a unique business. “I wake up every morning and think, ‘I can’t believe I get to do such a fun job and bring so much joy to the traveling public,’” she said. “One really cool thing is that we have a lot of repeat customers who are bringing their children and grandchildren now.”

Register contributor Kathy Schiffer has visited Wall Drug a couple of times, once with children in tow on the way to Mount Rushmore. “I was impressed by the fact that Wall Drug really became famous when they began offering free ice water to travelers making their way West during the Great Depression. They saw a need, and they set out to meet that.”

“I remember going there as a kid and buying rainbow rocks,” Teresa McKeown of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, told the Register. She returned last summer. “It was the perfect place to split up our drive. It’s not just a tourist stop, but a mini town with an old-fashioned soda shop. My two boys bought coonskin hats and loved the big dinosaur.”

Father Tyler Dennis is the pastor of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Wall. It has 100 families among the town’s still-small population of 650. Father Dennis grew up in Red Owl, just north of Wall, and worked eight summers at Wall Drug. 

“I loved watching people who came from all over,” he said. “When friends from college came to visit, I was excited to show them the drugstore.”

“I always thought that, in some ways, the drugstore is an expression of the American dream,” Father Dennis said. 

“The fact that Ted and Dorothy’s faith was such an important part of that is a beautiful expression of the Lord’s care and concern for them. I think they were blessed because of their fidelity to the Church and family and drugstore. It continues to be a blessing for this church and community, too.” 

If not for Wall Drug, according to Father Dennis, other businesses probably would not be able to make it. 

“Their decision to be faithful to Jesus,” he said, “has borne a lot of fruit in this community.”