When does a tacky tourist trap become a piece of historical heritage? When does a barrier to progress and an obstacle to passage become a national point of interest? And when does my wife, the expert on the war in the Pacific, learn that a ship she knew about had a secret name?
I bad-mouthed Keystone outside Mount Rushmore because it was such a blatant play for tourist dollars. But perhaps I was a snob. It is providing people something or it could not exist. It is providing jobs and fun. And maybe it will someday mean something more.
If you ever took a road trip west of the Mississippi, chances are you have seen a sign for Wall Drug. In 1931, Dorothy and Ted Hustead bought a drug store in Wall, South Dakota. It had a population of 326 Great Depression poor people. Their son, Bill, later joked the store was doing so badly, he thought they were going to put him up for adoption. Dorothy was a teacher; Ted was a pharmacist, and they could get jobs elsewhere, but they wanted their own place. They decided to give it five years to succeed.
One hot summer with their five years almost up, barely making ends meet and living behind a blanket in the back of the store, Dorothy had the idea to attract passing travelers by offering free ice water. The following weekend, Ted and his young son went out to put signs along the highway in sequence sort of like the old Burma Shave signs. He said he felt silly, but by the time he got back to the store, customers had lined up for ice water and had begun to buy other things like ice cream.
Son Bill grew tired of other kids teasing him about ice water, but his father put him to work, and he took the advertising to new levels: once there was a Wall Drug sign in Paris. Now grandson Ted, in his 60s, runs it.
76,000 square foot Wall Drug is like a huge shopping mall with every inch decorated in a western theme. They have a two and a half million dollar western art collection on the walls including a genuine N.C. Wyeth. The plaque below it notes his son Andrew and grandson Jamie “were also artists.” I guess oldTed didn’t like their style.
By the time Ted died at age 96 in 1999, Wall Drug was grossing ten million dollars. But it isn’t a high-profit business. With over two million visitors a year, free donuts for veterans and honeymooners and five cent coffee for everyone, it is clear the profit margin isn’t high. The big beneficiaries are the many Wall Drug employees and the town of Wall, which was to cut the ribbon on its newly refurbished main street five days after we stopped.
I didn’t like Keystone, but I had been to Wall in 1964 and had to go back to see what it was like today. I’m glad I did. Who knows what boy will similarly return to Keystone four or five decades down the way.
Even I, however, won’t claim a giant prairie dog or the world’s largest pheasant is anything more than it claims to be.
Further down the road, we came to Badlands National Park. Imagine an early pioneer trudging across mile after mile of flat
plain wondering if it will ever end. Then all of a sudden the earth opens in to a wide valley of rugged rocks and canyons that seems impossible to pass and useless to remain in.
Millions of years ago, a huge sea extended from what is now Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and from western Iowa to western Wyoming. Glaciers subsequently gouged the northern part and left hills of gravel moraines, but the rest was a flat sea bed until carved by streams and rivers. Nowhere is this flat area more evident than in South Dakota.
In one area, the seabed was later covered by jungle. The rotting vegetation turned the rock yellow. Then what had been jungle was covered by sediment flowing down from the weathering of what would be the Rocky Mountains. Jungle came in once again and as it deteriorated, this rock became red. And then the area became arid again and a new layer of dust and soil accumulated. You can see it all.
Once again, we also saw prairie dogs and bison. But our real thrill came when we stopped at an overlook to have lunch. I caught movement on the rocks out of the corner of my eye: two female Bighorn Sheep. And then there were two kids scrambling up for their lunch! Wow!
In Pierre that evening, we saw a large building dedicated to the World War One and Two veterans. There is an interesting memorial for EMS, Law Enforcement and Firemen from around the state who died on duty. It includes a 1880s Marshall, federal prohibition enforcement officers and one fish and game warden. There are also some very moving sculptures of military men and women at their memorial for those who died in Korea and Vietnam.
I was moved to laugh on the way to Pierre by another metal sculpture: the skeleton of a man with a leash leading the skeleton of a dinosaur.
Sioux Falls has sculptures on its downtown streets each summer. Residents can vote for the one they like best. It was just one of the many nice features of this town. They also have several lovely parks including one along at the falls on the Big Sioux River.
By coincidence, we visited the memorial to the Battleship South Dakota also known as Battleship X exactly seventy-one years to the day after the battleship was christened. It would be hard to get a battleship this far in land, but they managed to get many pieces including the barrel of a sixteen-inch gun. The ship fought in one of only two battles between American and Japanese battleships, the second Savo battle near Guadalcanal. 34 torpedoes missed it, but it had 27 major shell hits and 38 men were killed.
The ship received 13 battle stars in its career. Also, what may be the youngest person to serve in the World War II military was on the ship at Guadalcanal. He was discharged when it came out he was twelve. He confessed to Gunnery Officer Sargent Shriver, later brother-in-law to President Kennedy.
Oh yes, the Japanese thought they sank the South Dakota at Savo (Alie knew that), so from then on it was referred to in our transmissions as Battleship X (finally something new for Alie).