I’m on a vacation driving trip so I’ll keep this short. As I write, the driving happens to be across South Dakota, a state that is a mecca for highway billboards. You know—the tourist-trap type informing you of the mystery spot or the fun cave. Drive the state east to west on I-90 and it won’t take you 300 miles to become aware Wall Drug has 5 cent coffee, free ice water, and homemade pies and breakfast rolls. Wall Drug has been in business so long that its signs have become icons and there are many, many competing signs along the route. But I digress. If you’re like me, by the time you finally reach exit 109 and the town of Wall, you’ll be torn. Should I get sucked in by the advertising or do I drive on?
Even though I’d seen it before, I drive into Wall and rediscover how large this western-themed store is. The store is a complex of many specialty shops packed into a square city block right in the heart of town. Not the least interesting part is the all the life-sized western characters you can sit next to on benches so a traveling partner can snap an outrageous photo of you. My choice was the saloon girl.
In addition to loading up on cowboy boots, jeans, T-shirts, and belts you can also load up on fudge, jewelry, art, souvenirs, and victuals. And if you can’t find it here, it’s across the street in one of the other stores. Yes, the place abounds with kitsch, but you’re on vacation, and after the expense of all those signs, you practically feel obligated to buy something.
But wait, there’s more. Something I hadn’t noticed on my previous visit years ago was the serious side of Wall Drug, and I’m not talking about the prescription counter (yes, there’s a drug counter here too). Walk through any of the doors at the back of the shops, cross the alley and courtyard, and enter the large Wall Drug Backyard building. That’s the one with the snack bar, the mine that collapses, the monstrous roaring dinosaur and the poker table where a life-sized Wild Bill Hickok wax figure has pulled a gun on the card cheat sitting across from him as Doc Holliday and another player look on. A number of the large walls are filled with 8 x 10 black and white historical photo displays. There must be an thousand or two individual photos. I doubt you’d be able to give them adequate attention in a day. Heroes aplenty!
I had no idea someone had actually photographed Custer’s expedition as he led his troops to his famous last stand along the Little Bighorn in Montana. His supply train, the various camps, the scouts and soldiers—they’re all there. And of course you’ll find photos of those heroes of the west popularized by late 18th century dime novels and 20th century movies: cowboys. In addition to cowboys doing the various things they do, you’ll find a number of western notables and celebrities, not to mention ranchers, farmers, horses, politicians, cows, outlaws, dust storms, horse riders crossing the Missouri River on a pontoon bridge, and just about every Western thing imaginable. In this last category special note must be made of another heroic figure, one that didn’t gain that status until much more recently—the Indian. They’re shown with teepees, without teepees, both on and off the reservation. And they’re also documented as the cowboys and farmers many of them became. They can be seen posed with Indian agents, soldiers, and government officials, signing treaties, or simply being themselves. And you can see them in their traditional garb as well as in western clothes. If you have any interest in history, Wall Drug is well worth a stop.