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Succeeding on Faith, Friendliness—and Free Ice Water

Five thousand glasses of free H2o per day—and a friendly, faith-based approach to doing business—helped South Dakota’s Wall Drug thrive, as the store’s founder and proprietor, Ted Hustead, shares in this 1951 story.

A cs. 1950s Wall Drug postcard

I have always loved small towns. I love the warmth of friendship that comes when people meet casually for unhurried talk. There is an atmosphere of calm and a feeling that a man can stretch.

From the moment I graduated from the School of Pharmacy at the University of Nebraska in 1931, my wife, Dorothy, and I knew we wanted to buy a store in a small town. We discovered and fell in love with Wall, South Dakota, which was on the very border of the Badlands, and then had a population of 400.

We bought a little drug store on a shoestring. I was 28, my wife 24, and the first of four children had arrived. Then—the Depression.

Even without a depression many friends warned how hard it would be to succeed in a town of only 400 people. Perhaps the town was small, with its one main street and hand crank telephones, but it did have tourists motoring through to the Black Hills and points west.

At the start, business just trickled in: a rancher coming to town, a mother needing cough syrup, a tourist thirsty for a soda or youngsters looking for penny candy. We barely hung on, living in the room behind the store. We couldn’t afford adequate help, so Dorothy and I would switch back and forth from preparing baby bottles to dispensing sodas and pills.

Before settling in Wall, Dorothy and I had decided that the town of our choice should have a doctor, a bank, and most important, a church of our faith.

It was Father Connolly, our Priest, who helped us so much during the depression. He told us when we had first visited him: “You will make no mistake settling in Wall.” Then in the difficult months that followed, his sermons constantly hammered: “You must persevere…persevere to the end.”

We believe in praying first for what we want, then working to help make it come true. If we don’t receive what we pray for, we are willing to accept God’s decision. Perhaps God didn’t want us to succeed with our drug store.

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Then, one day it occurred to us that we had been missing a chance to do something for the tourists that passed through Wall. We liked small towns because of the warmth of the people. Were we reflecting this hospitality to our customers?

Suddenly Dorothy said to me: “Why don’t we advertise free ice water?”

We both laughed at first as if it were a huge joke. Then the more we thought about it, the more the idea struck us. Why not! Here we were in the heart of a hot, dusty area. Of course the travelers must be thirsty.

“Free Ice Water, Wall Drug Store, Wall, South Dakota.” This was the sign we posted along the approaching highways.

“Ted,” my wife said, “I think this is God’s answer.”

I knew what she meant. It wasn’t the ice water itself, but what it stood for—friendliness.

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The response was instant and heartwarming. Customers often stopped out of curiosity. Their unspoken question—what’s your angle? We met them with a genuine welcome and didn’t try to sell them anything. But the glass of ice water was always waiting.

I think it was the very simplicity of the idea that caused it to go over so well.

Soon it was necessary to hire extra help and expand the store. Yet we never forgot how much we owed God for our success and how important it was to keep Him always in the center of our activities.

In employing new help we asked applicants to furnish, as reference, the name of their pastor. We encourage our employees to go to church. Last summer one of our boys played the organ at the Lutheran church. Our own daughter played the organ at an early Mass.

Today our “free ice water” signs are as far away as Albany, New York; even in Europe and Greenland. Many who stop say they drove miles out of their way just to see us. Last summer our 28 employees dispensed an average of 5,000 glasses of water a day. We also fill many prescriptions daily, serve gallons of ice cream, with everybody having a good time, including the Husteads.

What little success we have had, we owe to a couple of good strong backs, staying everlasting at our work, and asking God for his help in the running of our business and our lives.

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