WALL, S.D. – Ted Hustead’s family knows a thing or two about running a tourist attraction during tough economic times.
Consider Wall Drug, on the north edge of South Dakota’s Badlands.
Hustead’s grandparents, Ted and Dorothy Hustead, bought the store in this small town in 1931 – during the Great Depression.
Business limped along for nearly five years until Dorothy Hustead thought of putting up road signs along the nearby highway offering free ice water to weary travelers headed to the Black Hills and Yellowstone.
That advertising campaign turned Wall Drug into an international icon, elevating it from a roadside stop to a tourist attraction that draws some 2 million visitors a year. Wall Drug signs have been erected around the world.
Now, the nation is enduring the toughest economic stretch since the Depression. And though business was down 4.6 percent in April compared to last year, Ted Hustead said he’s optimistic about the 2009 tourism season.
Still, he acknowledges the economy hasn’t been in the same situation since his grandparents bought the place.
“Typically we’ve been pretty recession-proof,” he said. “Same marketing plan. Still in the middle of nowhere. Still successful entertainment that kind of surprises a lot of people.”
Truck driver Brad Southern of Elkhart, Ind., first stopped at Wall Drug as a child and recently came through to look for a picture his father bought nearly 30 years ago.
“I’ve been looking for it for two years and I know this is where he bought it from,” he said, adding that eBay didn’t have it.
Besides quirky photos and wall hangings, other items for sale around the sprawling complex include rocks of many colors and sizes, wood carvings, leather works, books, jewelry and various sizes of mounted jackalopes – a mythical horned rabbit.
“It’s our type of place because we can look and shop all day,” said Nancy Agnew of Wheatland, Iowa. “We followed the signs to see how they’ve lived up to (them).”
“There’s so many along the highway, they got a little carried away,” added her friend and fellow traveler, Marlene Wiedenhoff of Lowden, Iowa.
Wall Drug still has free ice water but also sells its own brand of bottled water – for $1.09. The free water, served in a souvenir cup, still draws people, said employee Barb Reckling.
“They’ll come in and say, ‘Where’s your water? We’re thirsty. It’s hot.’ Especially if they’ve been through the Badlands first,” Reckling said as she tended the ice cream and soda fountain.
There’s also a chapel, places to pose with life-size characters and a larger-than-life jackalope, and an art collection that features original works from artists such as Harvey Dunn, N.C. Wyeth and Will James.
“People can’t believe we’ve got this kind of art in a cafe with a deep-fat fryer,” Hustead said.
He commissioned a study that determined 60 percent of Wall Drug’s visitors return because it’s free, unique and connects people with their heritage.
“The biggest driver of why people come to Wall Drug is curiosity,” said Hustead. “Business is theater and Wall Drug is the stage.”