Wall Drug and other businesses open back up after COVID
Wed, 06/10/2020 - 10:00am admin
Elizabeth “Liz” Meighen
by Elizabeth “Liz” Meighen
For the community of Wall and the family of Ted Hustead, an idea coined with the catch phrase—Free Ice Water—enticed travelers to divert from the dry and dusty highway to the family owned drug store located on Main Street. The mere thought of offering weary travelers a drink of cold water on a hot day forever changed life for the Hustead family and the City of Wall.
Ted Hustead and his wife, Dorothy, purchased Wall Drug Store in December 1931 during the Great Depression. Business slowed to the point of concern for the young Hustead family who implemented a five-year plan to either successfully operate the drug store or move on to another venture. With mere months left in the five-year plan, Ted Hustead pondered the future of his growing family. Ted pondered. Dorothy prayed. On a hot, dry summer day, Dorothy had what many would call an epiphany. When people traveled in those days, automobiles lacked the comfort and luxury of air conditioning. Generally, the first thing someone wants to do when they stop and get out of the hot and dusty car is to get a refreshing drink of water. Styled with that catch phrase and other jingle-styled sayings, Ted Hustead placed homemade signs along U.S. Highway 16 traveling towards Wall from both east and west. Upon his return, he found the drug store filled with customers. Business literally changed in the course of one day.
The Hustead family expanded the drug store wares, relocated from one side of Main Street to the other and continued building new features and attractions. Three generations, spanning eight-plus decades, continued to expand upon the drug store until it eventually encompassed an entire city block with the storefront ever present on Main Street. The hours of operation depend upon the tourist industry’s peak travel seasons. Logically, the drug store shortens hours in the winter months then expands the hours during the summer tourist season. Approximately 60 local employees work year round at Wall Drug. To accommodate upwards of 20,000 guests per day, Wall Drug hires workers from across the globe, offering temporary employment to U.S. and foreign college students, including summer employment opportunities for some U.S. retirees. Those have been the normal employment practices of Wall Drug Store. The Coronavirus Disease-2019 (COVID-19) pandemic created a new normalcy and again, business literally changed in the course of one day.
For the owners of Wall Drug, the new normalcy started on March 23. Sarah Hustead, granddaughter of founder Ted Hustead, works along side her father, Rick, at the drug store. On that day, the Hustead family decided to temporarily close the specialty shops, soda fountain and cafeteria. The pharmacy, an essential service, remained open to serve the members of the community by filling their prescription needs locally. A skeleton crew of 11 employees continued to work during the partial closure. The decision to partially close Wall Drug Store did not come lightly as the Hustead family planned to lay off approximately 49 full-time, local employees. The health and well-being of the employees, their families and members of the community became the primary concern of the Hustead family. The founder and his wife experienced the hardships in the 1930’s brought on by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, known as the Dirty Thirties. They witnessed the financial devastation of that decade, its hardships and the affect upon the families in the area. The founders shared those experiences with their children and their children’s children.
After 70 days of partial closure, Wall Drug Store reopened on June 1. The drug store called back all of its employees. Some employees understandably expressed apprehension while the majority excitedly looked forward to returning to work after ten weeks. Sarah Hustead said “through this time, I have felt like our staff is truly a family. We have all been supporting each other even though it has been difficult to experience these changes, we must look for the silver lining and try to be as safe as possible for the staff and community due to the high number of out of town guests coming to Wall.” None of the employees nor their family members experienced any illness, in part due to the store closure.
Kelsey Clark, executive director of the Wall Chamber of Commerce, reported that during the nationwide crisis, eight businesses in Wall ceased operations during the pandemic while another eight businesses partially closed and offered limited services. Clark noted that the Wall businesses opened “at their own pace and implemented steps with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as directed by Governor Kristi Noem” in her plan to return to normal business operations within the state. Kelsey expressed her gratitude for the extra efforts and accommodations made by businesses during the pandemic. There are 26 general, retail businesses in Wall and most have opened or will open in the near future. Some may offer limited services. When Wall Drug Store reopened on June 1, Clark said that the increase in tourism traffic was noticeably increased. Again, business literally changed in the course of one day.