The roadside attraction—it's as American as apple pie. Architecture critics have chronicled these way-stations of 20th century popular culture for years, and every time I'm on a road trip I try to do the same. Wall Drug had been on my bucket list for quite some time; I'd driven near it, by it, and around it—but was never actually able to stop in before.
We didn't have as much time as I'd hoped, but I was still able to mill around the place and get a paper cup of their World Famous Free Ice Water. Wall Drug's founder Ted Hustead struggled with his wife Dorothy to make ends meet on the Great Plains during an even greater Depression. What saved their business, quite frankly, was nearby Mount Rushmore which had recently opened to the public.
Dorothy had the foresight to realize that highway traffic was due to increase, and Wall Drug needed a clever gimmick to attract passerbys: free ice water. Of course, many places offered free water, even back then, in the form of drinking fountains or bathroom facilities. But it was Dorothy's genius to present the water as a unique experience and market it as a luxury by employing large signage along the highways. This billboard campaign eventually grew legs in the form of "so many miles to Wall Drug." These signs can now be found all over the world, on every continent—even Antarctica.
Some nice large 19th century wood type—which appears to be hand-painted—adorns nearly every storefront of the massive complex.
Over the years Wall Drug has expanded from a simple pharmacy property to something of an eclectic collection of adjoining buildings not unlike a Main Street of a small American town. The large, repeated signage recalls the famous billboard campaign which one can see coast to coast.
In terms of thematic design, Wall Drug is a wonderful decoupage—part Wild West Outpost, part Small Town Pharmacy / General Store / Ice Cream Parlor / Soda Fountain, part Mid-Century Diner, part Grandma's Antique Store, Part Hunting Lodge, part Church, part Art Gallery, part Rock Garden, part Giant Dinosaur (!?). Ok... part Everything.
The evolution of Wall Drug as a themed attraction reminds me very much of Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, California: a small family-run business weathers the Great Depression years, gains a strong local reputation, and prospers as a national tourist destination in the years after World War II. Granted, Wall Drug is much smaller in scale, and lacks roller coasters and other thrill rides. But it still has an extensive "backyard" environment featuring a pan for gold activity (cribbed right from Knott's) and bizarre photo opportunities.
Development of Interstate Highway I-90 in the late 1960s meant that Wall Drug was effectively bypassed as a roadside attraction—cars had to get off the interstate and make their way through a few downtown streets to get there. As a result, Ted and company hired a local sculptor named Emmet Sullivan to erect a fifty-ton, 80-foot-long dinosaur to attract traffic from the interstate. The dino's eyes lit up at night. Emmet knew what he was doing—in 1936 a Dinosaur park he had designed and built opened just outside nearby Rapid City. He even worked on the Mount Rushmore project.
Wall Drug is quite proud of all the publicity it gets across the nation, mostly in the form of free bumper stickers handed out reading WHERE THE HECK IS WALL DRUG?
I took several series of photos which I then later stitched together into seamless panoramics, to sort of get a sense of the scale of the place. Click any of them to enlarge.
Wall Drug is replete with signage—both historic and reimagined—that creates a kind of amplified brand effect inside its retail spaces. In a very odd way, this is analogous to how well-designed brand chains like the Apple Store or Niketown work; every fit and fixture reinforces the identity of the company and its products. Except in the case of Wall Drug, there is no brand, and the wares for sale are varied. Still, you can't turn around a single corner without another cute reminder that indeed, you're at Wall Drug.
Although Wall Drug shares the aesthetic of the American Old West with Knott's Berry Farm, it also occupies a sort of nebulous kitsch space. This is the theming of the eclectic—think a typical antique mall. All the mismatched junk; that's the show. That's the point. Beyond the retail spaces inside, this collage extends to the exterior facades: Saloon, General Store, Cabin, Brownstone, Wooden Shack, Medieval Castle (?!?).
In case you feel lost, here are the precise coordinates of your location to set you at ease.
And of course, you don't want to miss the backyard.
There are many such roadside attractions scattered throughout the United States. They comprise a very distinct flavor of what we think of as Americana, and such places appear to be more prevalent west of the Mississippi. It might be the endless expanses to cross via highway out west—the weary traveller on the one hand looking for somewhere interesting to stop, and the proprietor on the other trying to eke out a living in the middle of nowhere. In this case, a ridiculous massive green dinosaur works well for both parties.
Where the Heck is Wall Drug? It's lots of places, if you look for it.