“Free Ice Water. Wall Drug.”
Millions of motorists have seen this sign or its hundreds of variations. You can spot Wall Drug signs worldwide, even at the South Pole. As I drove west on Interstate 90, one sign in particular brought a smile to my face: “Wall Drug. Western Art.”
The town of Wall, north of Interstate 90 at the edge of South Dakota’s Badlands, is home to Wall Drug. Pharmacist Ted Hustead and wife Dorothy moved to Wall in 1931, buying the town’s only drugstore. Business was slow until 1936, when Dorothy came up with an idea to attract travelers from Highways 16 & 14—put up signs advertising free ice water. The signs were similar to the Burma Shave signs that told a story or rhyme, sign by sign. Dorothy’s slogan was: “Get a soda… Get root beer… Turn next corner… Just as near… To Highway 16 & 14… Free Ice Water… Wall Drug.”
As soon as the Husteads planted the signs, travelers began pouring into the store and the traffic never stopped. As the years progressed, they hired more staff and expanded the operation, until today it is more than just a drugstore, although you can still sip on free ice water or a steaming hot five-cent coffee. The Husteads sell Western jewelry, leather goods, clothing and books. But one of the top attractions is the Western Art Gallery Dining Room, where the road-weary traveler can order a buffalo burger and a Coke, and eat his meal surrounded by one-of-a-kind Western art.
Life doesn’t get much better than this.
Art History Lessons at Wall Drug
“Most people who come to the store have blinders on,” Ted Hustead says. “They walk through here, and they don’t look. But every now and then, we’ll get someone in who will say, ‘This is the most unbelievable collection of art I have ever seen.’ Or ‘Do you know this is the greatest illustration collection in the country?’ You get people like that who just go on and on.”
We like it when Ted Hustead goes on and on about Wall Drug’s art collection—all original works, no prints. In fact, that’s why Jim Hatzell and I were visiting with Ted, the grandson of Ted and Dorothy, and Wall Drug’s president. Jim had agreed to guide me on the Western art we’d be seeing at Wall Drug (he holds a degree in illustration from the American Academy of Art in Chicago, Illinois). Many True West readers know Jim’s work well; they voted him “Best Living Western Photographer” in 2009. Quite a few of today’s top Western artists know Jim as the director of the Artist Ride, held each August at the nearby Shearer Ranch along the Cheyenne River.
Jim knows Ted is not just blowing smoke about the art gallery. “I heard the same thing from the Artist Ride artists,” Jim says to Ted. “All these artists stop in at Wall Drug, and they go crazy over your collection.”
Anyone dining at Wall Drug’s café gets his first taste of just how special that collection is. The menu lists a few of the historical masters whose artworks can be found along the walls: “Please look for N.C. Wyeth, Harvey Dunn, Benton and Matt Clark, Harold von Schmidt, Morton Stoops, Will James and Frank McCarthy to name a few.”
Yet, how exactly did Wall Drug’s art collection get started?
“I think the first painting ever purchased, my grandfather bought it over 50 years ago,” Ted says. “It was an Andrew Standing Soldier painting. Andrew Standing Soldier painted the Native Americans as they were transitioning into cowboys on the reservation. He’s probably the most famous Native American artist coming out of South Dakota after Oscar Howe. We have eight Andrew Standing Soldier paintings.
“My father, Bill Hustead, is the one who really put the collection together. He started buying art in the late ’60s. He didn’t want just Western art, he wanted attractive art. He built the Art Gallery Café in the early ’70s. He wanted a restaurant the family, the town and he could be proud of.
“My father got into illustration art at a time when illustration art really wasn’t appreciated as much as it is now. People got over the fact that it was artists for hire, instead of an artist doing it for a higher purpose.”
Ted now keeps the collection going. “The last Harvey Dunn painting I bought, Apprehending the Horse Thieves, is our best Dunn,” he admits. “You can stand far away and see the picture in sharp detail, then walk up close and see his impressionistic style.”
Of the 10 Dunn paintings in the store’s collection, one of his favorites, and his dad’s favorite too, is Prairie Homestead—a painting of Dunn’s boyhood home.
“Most illustrative artists don’t paint anymore, it’s all digital photography,” Ted says. “It’s a lost art. These paintings have a cultural value now. Norman Rockwell and the other illustrative artists tell the story of America.”
“That’s right,” Jim agrees. “Cowboy art originated in America and not in Europe. For instance, [look at] John Ford’s John Wayne cavalry films. Ford had a large collection of Frederic Remington paintings. He told his wardrobe people and cinematographers, ‘I want the scene set up like this painting.’”
When it comes to illustration art, the man who set the scene was Howard Pyle. “He started the Brandywine School of Art where N.C. Wyeth and Harvey Dunn studied,” Ted says. “If you want to rank the illustration artists, it would go something like this:
• Norman Rockwell (he painted 322 covers of Saturday Evening Post)
• J.C. Leyendecker (321 Saturday Evening Post covers)
• Howard Pyle (Father of illustration art; “I’d love to have one of his paintings,” Ted admits.)
• Maxfield Parrish
• N.C. Wyeth
• Dean Cornwell (check out Opening Shot)
• Harvey Dunn
• Frank Schoonover
“I think Harvey Dunn is right up there with Wyeth,” says Mike Huether, Wall Drug’s general manager, who Ted called over to join us. “But Wyeth got his name out there and was more popular. Dunn is every bit as good as Wyeth.”
“They all vacationed together in Colorado,” Jim says.
“I think it was Trinidad, Colorado,” Mike replies. “There’s a little bar there, where N.C. Wyeth, Harvey Dunn and the others used to
party. The town has several Harvey Dunn paintings.”
“N.C. Wyeth was supposed to have had the greatest collection of props and costumes out
of all those guys,” Jim says. “They all used Wyeth’s props and costumes, and they all modeled for each other. You see them in each other’s paintings.”
We were about to see one Wyeth painting that was Ted’s favorite
of all the artworks at Wall Drug. But before he led us to it, he
took us on a guided tour of the Western Art Gallery, where four dining rooms feature more than 300 pieces hanging on the black walnut walls.
Showcased in the slide show are Ted’s favorite paintings at Wall Drug.