“You have to stop at Wall Drug.”
If you have ever found yourself driving on I-95 South to South Carolina, you are sure to have seen the plethora of politically incorrect and stereotypical billboards featuring the Mexican bandido Pedro. He is encouraging you to stop at “South of the Border”—a rest stop and roadside attraction that includes restaurants, a motel, gas station, and tacky souvenir stores.
Pedro entices you to stop with witicisms prefaced with “Pedro Sez”: “Pedro’s Weather Forecast: Chili today, hot tamale!;” “You Never Sausage a Place! (You're Always a Wiener at Pedro's!);” “Keep yelling, kids! (They'll stop.);” and, the worst of the lot, “Honeymoon Suites: Heir Conditioned.” (Aren’t they clever?)
Well, South Dakota has its answer to South of the Border—Wall Drug in Wall, SD.
From the moment we hit I-90 in Murdo and over the intervening eight-two miles west, the landscape was flooded with signs of things to crow about for Wall Drug.
Free ice water.
Frosty beer mugs.
And the T-Rex Dinosaur.
And more and more. I couldn’t get a photo of the sign encouraging you to buy your cowboy home décor at Wall Drug.
So when we learned that our Badlands scenic drive would bring us about fifteen miles due south of Wall, we decided that a brief—let me emphasize, brief—visit was in order. Along with breakfast.
Yes, we could have eaten at the Wall Drug café, but I was approaching Wall with a bad attitude. Too much touristy schlock. So we rejoiced when we saw the sign at the Cactus Café that read “breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” A reprieve.
The Cactus Café has been owned and operated by the same family for fifty years spanning three genera-tions. As the name suggests, the décor theme is heavy on cacti-related ornaments.
The breakfast menu is not long but seems designed for hearty appetites. You can order three-egg omelets, steak and eggs, huevos rancheros, pancakes, French toast, or eggs and meat combos. One item includes biscuits and gravy with eggs, potatoes, and bacon or sausage. Egad!
Chuck, ever the light eater, ordered the chicken fried steak with home fries and scrambled eggs. This was surprisingly good. The steak was crisp and juicy without a trace of gristle, and the white gravy was rich and creamy. The home fries were made with red skin-on potatoes. The eggs were eggs.
My choice was the breakfast burrito filled with eggs, hash browns, and taco seasoned beef and smothered with green chile and cheese. Salsa and sour cream came on the side. The beef did taste of “Ortega” type seasoning and here “less” would have been “more.” But the mildly hot green chile had a nice fresh pepper flavor and a bit of chile heat. This was so large that half came home and was eaten for breakfast the next morning.
While certainly not the greatest breakfast ever, this did surpass our expecta-tions. We were looking for merely sustenance and got more than that and award the Cactus Café 3.5 Addies. Now off for a bit of touristy schlock.
Right across the street was the promised Wall Drug. It covered an entire block, although we weren't quite sure if every store within the block was truly part of Wall Drug.
Just above the door on the left is an arrow and a sign that reads "Wall Drug Main Entrance No. 3." This door led into a huge space with a cafe that seats 500 and a large store with every tourist souvenir imaginable. And even though this space was expansive, in this town with a population of 786, the large store was filled with travelers who, no doubt, just had to see what all the fuss was about.
One of the other entrances opened into an enclosed passageway with small shops opening off the walkway. It had the flavor of a carnival midway. And surprisingly, along with the life-size figures and popcorn and candy stands, there was even a very small drug store.
In December of 1931, Dorothy and Ted Hustead opened the drug store in a town of 326 poor people in the "middle of nowhere." They gave themselves five years to make a go of it.
In July of 1936, with barely five months left in their self-determined time limit, Dorothy, noticing all the cars passing by the town, noted: "Well, now what is it that those travelers really want after driving across that hot prairie? They're thirsty. They want water. Ice cold water!"
Placing signs, fashioned along the lines of the Burma Shave signs, along the highway was a success. "For hours we poured gallons of ice water, made ice cream cones and gave highway directions. When the travelers started on their way again, refreshed and ready for new adventures, they gave us hearty thanks."
And today as many as 20,000 visitors a day stop into Wall Drug to get refreshed.