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South Dakota: Energy, a Road Trip and the Jackalope

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted July 25, 2017

They’re everywhere. Driving through South Dakota during a summertime trek across the U.S. northern tier, it’s nearly impossible to avoid seeing billboard after billboard advertising the quintessential American roadside emporium – Wall Drug of Wall, S.D.

Download: South Dakota is Energy

Yes, South Carolina has South of the Border, the world’s largest ball of twine sits under a shelter in Kansas, Tennessee has Rock City and Minnesota is home to the SPAM Museum. And, believe me, there are many similar “attractions” across the United States.

Yet, probably none is as famous the world over as Wall Drug – relentlessly, ubiquitously, hawking “free ice water” to draw visitors to the king of kitsch for 81 years. While the town of Wall is smaller than the tip of a pen on the Rand McNally, no one else has a photo-op magnet, for youngsters and oldsters alike, that’s better than Wall Drug’s big ‘ol “Jackalope.”

Behind the ice water billboards, the Jackalope and all the rest of Wall Drug’s crazy-quilt allure, there’s energy.

In South Dakota, Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, the Crazy Horse Memorial and the Black Hills all are big attractions. Yet, for kids younger than a certain age (and many adults, too), Wall Drug is must-see entertainment. “Some people visit these places to make fun of them,” says founder Doug Kirby, “but you know you like them deep down.”

Energy is integrally involved in Wall Drug’s birth. As the story goes, founder Ted Hustead and his wife moved to Wall to open a drugstore in 1931.

Wall Drug Historic Image

In a Dust Bowl-era town of 326 people, the business was struggling when in 1936 the Husteads dreamed up the idea of boosting in-store foot traffic by putting hand-painted signs along the highway, advertising free ice water. Well, it worked. The Husteads saved their enterprise and proceeded to grow it into what today is a 76,000 square-foot attraction. And it still offers free ice water. More than 2 million visitors a year come in for plastic cups with the words “free ice water” printed on them. Energy is at the center of the novelty. The plastic cups, so central to the Wall Drug brand, are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a material derived from modifying natural gas or the catalytic cracking of crude oil into gasoline.

This Way to Wall Drug

Yet, free ice water would’ve been just a quaint gesture without mass marketing. That kind of appeal resulted from the hand painted signs Wall Drug deployed along a 650-mile span of highway that today is I-90. They’ve become emblematic of the South Dakota road trip.  

Wall Drug Free Ice WaterSign

Wall Drug Cowboy-upSign

Wall Drug Burger Sign

The Kurtz family has painted Wall Drug signs since the early 1950s, and from those first signs to the higher-tech billboards dotting the modern interstate, petroleum has played a central role. According to second-generation family painter Chris Kurtz, the signs always have been made with heavy-duty paints that allow the precision needed for sign lettering and that can withstand South Dakota’s rugged climate for up to 10 years. These lettering paints, as well as almost all other paints on the market, are made with petroleum-based pigments, dyes, solvents, resins and additives.

A paint’s pigment gives it the vibrant color that catches the eye – you know, as that Wall Drug sign grows from a blip on the horizon to full frame out the car window as you whiz by. Solvents make paint easier to apply, which means the artist only needs to go over each letter once. Resins help the paint dry, and additives function as a filler and antifungicidal agent. The resulting prairie art, if you will, breaking up a seemingly endless stream of asphalt cutting through the high grass, is made possible by refining and processing petroleum and natural gas. Kurtz:

“Old-fashion sign painting is almost like a lost art with the computer design of today’s world. But hand-painted, hand-lettered signs are still superior and desired … and we’re proud to help keep the tradition alive.”

Because of energy, the Kurtz family can do just that.

The Jackalope

The Wall Drug “Backyard” is home to the 6-foot Jackalope, a mythical animal of Western folklore that is part jack rabbit and part antelope. Visitors far and wide come to Wall Drug for the chance to ride the Jackalope – and snag a photo with it to make the folks back home jealous.

But Wall Drug’s Jackalope is no soft and furry creature, he’s made from fiberglass, a type of fiber-reinforced plastic that’s lightweight yet durable. Making it requires energy, and typically it also uses petroleum-based polymers and other plastics as binding agents.

Want a souvenir? They’ve got a few of ‘em inside, including plastic jackalopes made with petroleum-based products.

Going the Distance

During peak summer months, more than 20,000 road trippers visit Wall Drug on their 350-mile journey through South Dakota’s outdoor attractions. Using the average gas mileage for 2015, and assuming there are four people traveling per car, you’re talking about more than 73,000 gallons of gasoline.

Again, it’s energy that’s behind the things we do at play and at work and every season of the year – especially summer – making them better, more colorful and accessible and more fun

South Dakota Shareable: This Way to Wall Drug

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Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.