IF THE CREATION OF THE NATIONAL PARK and conservation stemming from the Dust Bowl made possible Wall’s key natural resources, the 1930s also saw the genesis of the town’s most valuable man-made asset. In 1931 Ted and Dorothy Hustead, a young couple just two-and-a-half years out of the University of Nebraska, arrived looking for three things: good schools, a Catholic church, and a drug store for sale. Hustead was a pharmacist and the local drug store sold only over-the-counter medicines, not prescriptions. The town doctor, G.W. Mills, told Ted that Wall needed a pharmacist and predicted he could do well. Mills was right, but certainly he couldn’t have imagined the now-classic American success story about to unfold.
In a moment of inspiration during the hot summer of 1936, Dorothy suggested the drug store might supplement its revenue by pulling travelers off Highway 16, the dusty east-west route across South Dakota in those years before Interstate 90. The bait Dorothy proposed to lure travelers? Free ice water as advertised on roadside signs the Husteads erected. In the days prior to air-conditioned cars the ice water offer had lots of takers, and the Husteads also provided friendly conversation, ice cream and Badlands and Black Hills souvenirs. Eventually there would be mechanized cowboy musicians, full meals, a bookstore emphasizing American Indian and western history, western wear, a travelers’ chapel, historical photos, 300 original paintings including works by Harvey Dunn and N.C. Wyeth and even a snarling mechanized Tyrannosaurus rex. Yes, there’s still free ice water, too.
“A while back we made a widely published list as one of the country’s top roadside attractions,” says Ted H. Hustead, Ted and Dorothy’s grandson. “Then just a week or so later we made another list as one of America’s biggest tourist traps. I always say whatever the list, good or bad, it doesn’t matter as long as we’re on it.”
The contemporary Ted and his brother, Rick, run the drug store as a partnership. Ted credits his grandfather for “building the infrastructure for everything that was to come, not only at the drug store, but for the community. Wall didn’t even have running water when he arrived.”
Bill Hustead, Ted and Rick’s dad and a pharmacist like his own father, was the second generation to run the store and, Ted reflects, “he was the dreamer, Mr. Romantic, who wanted to build up a distinctive business we’d all be proud of. And he built solidly. People who look at Wall Drug photos might think it’s mostly facades, but the storefronts in our mall and other features are two-by-four and two-by-two construction. Real lumber, real brick, real marble table tops, and decorated with real paintings.”
Ted and Rick, unlike their late grandfather and father, aren’t pharmacists. Denny Womeldorf has held that position at Wall Drug the past couple decades. Rick has a counseling degree. Ted studied at Harvard Business School in the era when many of his classmates were focused on the dot.com entrepreneurial trend that began in the 1990s. Still, some of those classmates knew of storied Wall Drug, and they appreciated the perspective Ted brought from small town South Dakota. He returned with ideas for his own business and an appreciation for his dad’s business instincts. “Maybe he used different terminology than you’d hear in a business school, but he knew the concepts,” Ted says.
Harvard also exposed Ted to a chilling reality: third generation business owners typically don’t do well and, in fact, often run the enterprise into the ground. It’s a rags-to-riches-to-rags phenomenon recognized in all of the world’s business cultures.
“But it won’t happen here,” Ted promises. “When you grow up within a business that’s already well-developed, you might have big blinders on. So you have to take another hard look and decide what your business really is. We’ve decided Wall Drug is show business, that the store is a stage, and that our job is to make sure the show goes on.”
The brothers spend plenty of time on this stage, tending cash registers, greeting customers and staff, or grabbing window wash and a cloth to wipe away smudges. They are beating that third generation curse, having enjoyed good numbers despite $4 gas and a recession.