Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Ice Water for Jesus

Driving through South Dakota—or Montana or Wyoming or—one cannot help but see signs for Wall Drug. Even if you have not made the trip yourself, you are likely to have heard of the store from resources like Roadside America or public radio or television. Wall Drug, with its historical photo galleries and jackalopes, seems to embody something inherently American—founded in a small town in an underpopulated part of South Dakota, a family's hard work builds an empire.

With the promise of cheap coffee, free doughnuts for veterans, and free ice water for all, Wall Drug's signage projects the down-home quality that camper nation prefers to patronize.1 In the free brochures (stacked beside the ubiquitous free bumper stickers) and on the Wall Drug website, the founder of Wall Drug Ted Hustead's story is the story of a devout, educated, and hard-working husband and father who perseveres against the odds.

From the introduction:

It was December 1931. Dorothy and I had just bought the only drugstore in a town called Wall on the edge of the South Dakota Badlands. We'd been open a few days, and business had been bad. I stood shivering on the wooden sidewalk. In this little prairie town there were only 326 people, 326 poor people.


We were living in Canova, South Dakota, when we began our search, covering Nebraska and South Dakota in our Model T. As we searched, we were sure of two things: we wanted to be in a small town, and we wanted the town to have a Catholic church. In Canova, the nearest parish was 20 miles away. We wanted to be able to go to mass every day.

In Wall, where the drugstore was for sale, we found both a small town and a Catholic church. And when we talked to the priest, the doctor and the banker, they all told us that Wall was a good place with good people and that they wanted us to come live there.
Hustead, a trained pharmacist, and Dorothy, his wife who teaches literature in high school, pray on the decision to move to Wall, and they agree to make a five-year experiment of the move and the store—if Wall Drug does not succeed within five years, they will pack up and move elsewhere.

Despite filling prescriptions for those who needed them, the Husteads believed they were wasting their God-given talents:

The first few months went by and business didn't improve. "I don't mind being poor, " Dorothy said to me. "But I wonder if we can use our talents to their fullest here in Wall."

When Dorothy spoke of talents, my heart sank. My wife had a teaching degree and had taught literature in a Sioux Falls high school. Was I being fair, making her work in this prairie drugstore?

But the next minute Dorothy said, "We shouldn't get down, Ted. I'm sure we can use our abilities fully here. We can make this place work!"
The spirit of this passage is quite sincere, and the notion of Hustead valuing his wife's work in the early 1930's seems anomalous for the time. In what reads like a religious vision, Hustead's wife leaves the store early, attempts to sleep but cannot because of the "jalopies [on Route 16A that] just about shook the house to pieces."

Hearing the noise of the cross-country drivers, Dorothy discovered what would keep Wall Drug's doors open under the Hustead's proprietorship:

"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! 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? Listen, I even made up a few lines for the sign:

"Get a soda . . . Get a root beer . . . turn next corner . . . Just as near . . . To Highway 16 & 14. . . Free Ice Water. . . Wall Drug."

As travelers stopped for their ice water, they began to purchase ice cream cones and other items from Wall Drug, making the store a huge success. In 2007, the store can host as many as 20,000 shoppers on a summer day, demonstrating the power of free ice water.

The story closes with these words of Ted Hustead's wisdom: "Free Ice Water. It brought us Husteads a long way and it taught me my greatest lesson, and that's that there's absolutely no place on God's earth that's Godforsaken. No matter where you live, you can succeed, because wherever you are, you can reach out to other people with something that they need!"

The last lines of this story, while ostensibly about Christian fellowship and the benefits of practicing charity, are used to justify capitalistic success. One wonders why the Hustead's were not satisfied by providing medicine to the sick of Wall, yet feel that their God-given talents were utilized by turning a quick dollar through a clever marketing campaign.2 In this story, as in the stories of many who work in finance, "need" and "talents" and "reaching out" are used in the spirit of equivocation. And as a culture we buy into this story, through the teller's ethos—in this case his devout, bootstrap-pulling story—and the innocence of the telling (here, the economic windfall seems perhaps unplanned or at least ancillary to the goal of practicing Christian charity).

An ice-cream cone or a freshly-poured soda might have been what the travelers thought they really needed, but they got water for free and paid for the rest. And the Hustead's were fulfilled, and that alone was good.

Stopping at Wall Drug on the way to Colorado from the Badlands, we filled our water bottles from the free ice water taps in the courtyard and bought a coffee, five cents, and a maple doughnut, $1.37 after tax. Of course, the coffee is mostly water.

1I aspire to camper-nation status, and I mean this without irony.

2The story touches on this only once—in the midst of the first day of free ice water, a businessman comments on the signage: "'Hey this free ice water is a great idea,' said a salesman, sidling up onto a stool. 'How about selling me an ice cream cone?'"

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