Midwest Advertising: Resistance is Futile

Both times I've driven through South Dakota, I've been forced against my will to make an unscheduled stop.

The first time it happened, my boyfriend Bryan and I had just graduated from college in New York, and were headed west to camp in the Badlands and check out Mt. Rushmore, among other things. But thanks to a unique form of Midwest advertising, we ended up making an unscheduled stop at the world's most bizarre drug store: Wall Drug.

Here's how it works. For about 300 miles in South Dakota on U.S. Highway 90, every few miles there is a billboard for Wall Drug that proclaims "5-cent coffee!" or "Free ice water!" Because the landscape along the road is as interesting as a calculus lecture, it's impossible to avoid reading the signs. Initially, we laughed about the absurdity of the notion. "Do people really fall for this blatant marketing?" I asked Bryan. "What a sales pitch free water."

Several hours and countless billboards later, we were drinking the free ice water that began the Wall Drug legend. In 1931, Ted and Dorothy Hustead moved to Wall, S.D., outside of Badlands National Park, and founded Wall Drug. After about five years and few customers, Dorothy had the idea to post signs advertising free ice water. The plan was so successful that now Wall Drug sees up to 20,000 people each day during the summer.

The store has expanded to include a restaurant, arcade, shooting gallery and a Tyrannosaurus Rex that blows steam out of its nose. The kitsch value is the real draw, though, with silly statues, a giant "jackalope," and photos from around the world with people holding or pointing to Wall Drug signs.

Like a couple of assholes, we ended up taking pictures of me climbing on a ceramic bear with the sign "Do Not Climb on Bear," and watching the scary dinosaur blow steam out of its nose along with a cluster of children. After spending days in the car without any diversions, it was actually fun.

Seven years later, Bryan and I found ourselves on another cross-country jaunt, again through South Dakota on Highway 90. This time, we made an unscheduled stop at the Mitchell Corn Palace, a tourist trap that had taken a page from the Wall Drug school of advertising since our last trip. Signs for the palace, such as "Fabulous Ear-Chitecture" and "It's A-Maize-Ing," elicited repeated groans from us as we drove toward the trap.

"Whatever happens, we're not going to that stupid place," Bryan told me. Although I wholeheartedly agreed, later that day we were gaping at a Russian-style palace with murals made of corn and other grains that read www.millennium.corn. (Groan.)

The first Corn Palace was built in 1892, partly in response to Lewis and Clark writing in their journals that no man could ever make a living by farming in the area. The town spent $2,976.48 to cover a small wooden structure with crops grown in the area in order to showcase the "rich Dakota soil," and a tradition was born.

The Corn Palace of today takes about $100,000 and three months to redecorate every year, when a new theme is displayed in the corn, grasses and grains of South Dakota. Approximately 275,000 ears of corn are sawed in half and nailed to the building each year.

Inside, the palace hosts a corn-themed gift shop and a concession stand with popcorn balls, caramel corn and the like. There are photos of all the past corn palaces, and a video about the history of the Corn Palace.

The Corn Palace is also open for community events. For example, several local high school basketball teams play in the palace, including the Mitchell Kernels.

More than 500,000 tourists visit the Mitchell Corn Palace each year.

If nothing else, Wall Drug and the Mitchell Corn Palace serve a valuable purpose: providing bored drivers with conversation fodder. The ads are ludicrous, and the destinations themselves are ridiculously kitschy. Still, I'll bet anyone that on a road trip through the great plains, you will inevitably find yourself drinking free ice water at Wall Drug and eating popcorn at the Mitchell Corn Palace, lamenting that you were sucked in but also kind of glad that you were.

Jen Reeder



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