Restaurants | Food

Free Ice Water and Donuts Attract 22,000 Daily Visitors To This Small Town

It's said that some of the best things in life are free. That's what changed the luck of a struggling small family business that now has been serving their customers for over 4 generations.

Thanks to some clever marketing, the legendary Wall Drug Store has been a pit stop off Route 16A in South Dakota for families and travelers for decades.

With hundreds of billboard signs guiding hungry and thirsty travelers to the store that offers free ice water, 5 cent coffee and the best donuts in the state, it's no wonder they can see 22,000 people come through their doors in the peak of summer holiday.

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Located on Main Street in the tiny Midwestern town of Wall (with a population of  882 as of 2014), Wall Drug just made Bill Clevelen's popular book Top 100 Things To Do in America Before you Die.

The store employs over 200 people during its peak season of summer and 60 year-round. From May to August many tourists flock to the area while en route to the Badlands or to see Mount Rushmore.

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With an old-fashioned soda fountain, a mechanical T-Rex and a giant jackalope sculpture outside, there are many photo worthy moments at Wall Drug.

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"A big part of what we do is customer service—50 percent of our business is repeat business," current owner, Rick Hustead, tells "We're a very interesting, unique attraction that grew up in the hard times of the Depression and is continuing today into the fourth generation. We take great pride in what we do."

But see what really makes them special on the next page.

Originally a drug store of just 1,500 feet, Wall Drug came from humble beginnings. Founded in 1931, during the Great Depression, by pharmacist Ted Hustead and his wife Dorthy, a former teacher, there were only 326 in the town and every one of them was poor.

The Husteads lived in the back of the store with their baby, Bill. Eventually the family was able to move into a house where they had their second child, a baby girl.

The couple agreed to give the drug store 5 years to flourish.

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"We'll make it go," Ted Hustead recalled Dorothy saying in a Guideposts Magazine excerpt on the store's site. "And just think, Ted, pretty soon that monument at Mount Rushmore will be done, and then there will be an endless stream of people going by. I'm sure they'll visit us!"

5 years had passed and so did hundreds of cars, and business was not getting any better.

One hot Sunday in July of 1936 Dorthy came up with an idea that would change their fortunes.

After failing to put the children down for a nap because of the noise from the highway, she had an idea for how to lure customers into the store.

"You know what, Ted? I think I finally saw how we can get all those travelers to come to our store," she said. "What is it that those travelers really want after driving across that hot prairie? They're thirsty. They want water. Ice cold water! Now we've got plenty of ice and water. Why don't we put up signs on the highway telling people to come here for free ice water?"

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So Ted hired a high school student to help him make signs for the highway with Dorthoy's slogan on it: "Get a soda … Get a root beer … turn next corner … Just as near … To Highway 16 & 14 … Free Ice Water … Wall Drug."

They were busy that summer, so much so that they had to hire 8 local girls to help work the soda fountain and serve the customers, all thanks to Dorthy's advertising.

The Hustead's continued to put up signs on the highway, and it has now become quite the spectacular.

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The signs aren't just restricted to South Dakota anymore though.

While serving the Red Cross in World War II, Leonel Jensen, a family friend posted signs all over Europe advertising the store.

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Country Living

This quirky tradition continued when Ted was on vacation in London. He posted a sign in then London Underground saying that Wall Drug was only 5,160 miles away, and promised free information about the South Dakota store and area if they wrote.

That's when the letters began to pour in. The store received 12-20 letters per day by curious Londoners. Ted was even interviewed by the BBC.

Servicemen continued the spectical of signs during the Korean and Vietnam war.

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Sign eventually reached as far as Paris, Kenya, Antarctica, and Afghanistan.

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See where the store is today on the next page.

Today, the store still gives out free signs and bumper stickers for those who want to spread the word about the family-owned drug store.

The once baby who lived with his parents at the back of the struggling store, has now passed on the place to his son, Rick. Rick's wife runs the camping supply store and their 29-year-old daughter Sarah just joined them 5 years ago, which makes this business run by 4-generations of Husteads.

Yes, Jackalopes are real and this one just got a makeover. #jackalope #walldrug

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The store is now 76,000 square feet and includes a prairie food parlor, a traveler's chapel, a backyard with games and photo ops, as well as a Western shopping mall where you can buy cowboy hats, boots, Native American turquoise and Black Hill gold.

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The on-site restaurant seats 520 and has become known for their donuts, hot beef sandwiches and buffalo burgers. For decades they have been serving up free donuts and coffee to veterans.

#festive #walldrug #walldrugstore #donuts

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"I think Wall Drug is a beautiful American business, employs a lot of local people and students from all over—to see it continue gives me the greatest satisfaction," Rick said. "And continued well, not be diminished, to be as good as we ever were, only better."