WALL | The world famous Wall Drug Store may attract thousands of visitors to this little town perched on the fringe of the Badlands, but it's the friendly people who persuade others to make it their home.
Just ask the members of any local coffee group sipping a cup of the drug store’s nickel coffee, while waiting for the postmaster to finish sorting the daily mail.
“We like it here,” said Kathy Fremstad, 65.
Kathy, along with her husband, Jim, first visited Wall 45 years ago on their honeymoon. Years later, the Minnesota couple sent their children to work at Wall Drug for the summer.
Now, Wall is where the grandkids live, so the Fremstads left Minnesota to retire to the community almost three years ago.
“We’re grandma and grandpa daycare,” Kathy Fremstad said.
Patty Kjerstad, 70, is a “born and raised” Wall gal; as is Carla Brucklacher.
Kjerstad married and stayed in the area to raise her children on a ranch with her late husband, Dick. She now lives in town and operates a couple local businesses with her children.
“I’ve always stayed close by,” Kjerstad said.
Brucklacher and her husband, Mark, a Philip boy from down the road, tried living in eastern South Dakota for a while after they married. They stuck it out for nine months.
“It wasn’t my bag,” Brucklacher said. The couple returned to raise their children in the area where their roots were in 1969, she said.
Everything about West River is better -- the weather, especially the humidity, and the people are friendlier -- said Brucklacher, whose father, Lynn Williams, was the town’s barber for 63 years. Williams was 90 when he died in May; he had retired from part-time barbering in 2011.
“The people are the best assets,” said Betty Crown, the fourth member of the morning coffee group.
Crown’s son, Byron, died two years ago after a lengthy battle with brain cancer. The community embraced his struggle and rallied to help the family.
“It was not a one-time thing,” Crown said. “They never abandon you. I owe everybody.”
Even those who leave have a hard time abandoning Wall.
Marge Pahl, an emergency medical technician, fills a 36-hour volunteer shift for the Wall Ambulance Service when she can. The ambulance service is always short of help, she said.
“I feel bad about my ambulance family,” said Pahl, who lives in Rapid City.
Pahl and her husband, Jim, moved to Rapid City two years ago when he retired as general manager of Golden West Telecommunications.
After living in Wall for 20 years, leaving was hard, she said.
“I miss my friends and the closeness of the community,” Pahl said.
And, she clarified one rumor about small town people. Everyone isn’t a prying busybody.
“Half are just snoopy and the other half are concerned,” Pahl said.
Wall’s population dipped from 818 in 2000 to 776 in 2010, according to Lindsey Hildebrand, director of the Wall Chamber of Commerce.
A Wall native, Hildebrand, 28, and her husband, Haven, are part of the town’s younger generation that could grow in the coming years, she said. He operates a concrete construction business; she just completed her MBA at the University of South Dakota.
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“I wouldn’t trade the small town atmosphere for anything,” Hildebrand said.
Golden West and West River Electric Cooperative are both significant employers in the town.
“So many people are going through retirement,” Hildebrand said.
Those retirements make the prospect of young families moving to town exciting, she said.
“Things are promising, our preschool classes are larger than they’ve ever been,” Pahl said.
Wall completed a new school complex in 2005, which should be an added benefit.
There’s more to the community than Wall Drug, Hildebrand said. People are often surprised at the town’s infrastructure that includes a clinic, 13 motels, a grocery store, a hardware store, several restaurants and a park, with a pool that offers free swimming. There’s also a community gym.
Badlands National Park is just a few minutes away and Rapid City is only a 40-minute drive.
Most impressive is the recently completed $1.3 million overhaul of Main Street.
“We’ve got so much to be thankful for,” said Mayor Dave Hahn, 72, who just started his 29th year as mayor.
Hahn was hired as the school superintendent 41 years ago. He left education three years later to buy the Gambles Store, which he operated for 22 years. He owned the local Standard Station for the next eight years, before “retiring.”
Sales tax dollars generated by Wall Drug and the other local businesses is the community’s biggest advantage. The town has a $1.3 million annual budget and real estate taxes support only $200,000 of that budget.
“How fortunate we are,” Hahn said, adding that sales taxes generate more than $1 million annual.
The city council is working on an agreement to help Dakota Mill and Grain continue to expand its grain handling operation, Hahn said. The company has increased its grain handling capacity from 200,000 bushels to 650,000 bushels in recent years.
“The local ag economy is important," Hahn said.
There’s also hope that the Canadian Pacific Railroad will continue with plans to build a railroad line connecting Wall with the Wyoming coal fields.
It’s impossible, however, to ignore Wall Drug. Ted and Dorothy Hustead’s struggling depression-era pharmacy that now spans most of a city block, all because of a simple sign inviting parched travelers to stop for free ice water. During the summer months, the attraction employs 200 people.
There’s plenty to experience for the whole family at the drug store that’s more than just a pharmacy. The ice water is still free and the coffee really is only 5 cents.
A visit to Wall Drug is an experience that is educational and entertaining in surroundings enhanced by world class esthetics, which is all part of the plan, according to Wall Drug president Ted Hustead, the grandson of the founding Husteads.
“It’s the No. 1 attraction in the world,” Hustead said.
The community is as much a part of the drug store’s success as the ice water, Hustead said.
“In a nutshell, our relationship is definitely a two-way street,” Hustead said. “We are very grateful for the community’s patience in the summer months with all the traffic.”
Wall is a perfect place to do business, Hustead said.
It’s also a great place to raise children.
“I am very pleased with how my children have turned out and wouldn’t change Wall for raising a family,” Hustead said.