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South Dakota's Wall Drug 

If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home. This week we’re headed to South Dakota, home of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, famous Lakota Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, and that big statue you might remember from Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

WALL DRUG

The Strange States series has highlighted a lot of odd roadside attractions—including The Thing in Arizona, Indiana’s giant ball of paint, and a museum in Missouri that features nothing but hair—so we’d be remiss not to mention one of the original tourist hot spots in America, Wall Drug.

The story of Wall Drug begins in 1931 when Ted and Dorothy Hustead moved to the small town of Wall, S.D. Using part of a $3000 inheritance he’d received from his father, Ted bought out the local pharmacy and began serving the community of 230 people. Business was slow until 1936 when the Mount Rushmore monument became a patriotic vacation destination.

In the days before air conditioned cars and the establishment of the Interstate Highway system, weary travelers were always on the lookout for someplace to stop for a drink and a chance to get out of their bumpy cars, especially while traversing the lonely, hot plains of South Dakota in the middle of summer. So Dorothy had the idea of putting up hand-painted signs along Route 16A leading to Rushmore advertising free ice water at Wall Drug. Before Ted had even returned to the store from putting out the first batch of signs, 30 people were already lined up at the counter enjoying their free water, but also buying five cent cups of coffee, sodas, snacks, and other road trip frivolties. The roadside signs became a signature hook of Wall Drug, and by the 1960s, at the peak of the summer vacation era, there were over 3000 signs spread out over every state in the Union.

Despite the nationwide name recognition, Wall Drug was little more than a small pharmacy, snack pit stop, and souvenir shop until the 1970s, when Ted handed the business over to his son Bill. Bill expanded the business to a sprawling 76,000 complex with dozens of ways to entertain travelers.

Today, there’s a mock diamond mine where youngsters can don hard hats and pick axes, then sluice for precious gems or fossils. The replica Old West train station and its splash fountains is a big hit in the summer. You’ll also find a fiberglass Jackalope wearing a saddle that’s large enough to climb on, as well as a few bucking bronco statues, all of which have become popular photo ops.

If you need a bite to eat, Wall Drug has an ice cream and soda fountain, a fudge shop, a donut factory, and a cafe with a full menu of hot meals. Perhaps you’d prefer a latte or an espresso while you browse the “Largest Private Western Art Collection in the Country,” filled with hundreds of paintings and statues in the gallery.

Naturally, you can buy souvenirs like t-shirts, beer koozies, and trucker caps, but the stores inside also carry wall-mounted Jackalopes, Black Hills gold jewelry, Native American artifacts, and Bobbleheaded celebrities. And, believe it or not, there is actually a working pharmacy inside, where you can get a prescription filled while you’re on the road.

To add to the circus atmosphere, there are a host of animatronic wonders, including a cowboy orchestra and a Tyrannosaurus Rex straight out of Jurassic Park. And speaking of dinosaurs, you can’t miss the 80-foot long bright green Apatosaurus with blazing headlight eyes that calls to cars on nearby Interstate 90 like a lighthouse in a storm.

It’s estimated that nearly 2 million people visit Wall Drug every year where they can still get free ice water and a five cent coffee, as well as just about anything else their heart may desire in the middle of nowhere South Dakota.

Read all the entries in our Strange State series here.

Original image
Boston Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Is This the Most Mysterious Grave in Virginia?
Original image
Boston Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

In 1816, local legend has it that a ship dropped off an unknown couple in Alexandria, Virginia. The woman was extremely ill, possibly from typhoid fever, and couldn’t wait until their final destination to receive medical attention.

Alas, it was too late; she died a few weeks later while boarding at Gadsby’s Tavern. No one had spoken to her or, some say, even seen her face—any time anyone saw her, her features were hidden by a long, black veil. Her husband quickly arranged for a burial at St. Paul’s Cemetery, then borrowed money for a headstone from a local merchant named Lawrence Hill.

Under the circumstances, you might think the mysterious man would keep the epitaph simple, resulting in a more affordable stone and a smaller loan to repay. Instead, he went the opposite route, having a huge marker etched with this wordy tribute:

“To the memory of a Female Stranger, whose mortal sufferings terminated on the 14th day of October, 1816 Aged 23 years and 8 months. This stone is placed here by her disconsolate husband in whose arms she sighed out her latest breath, and who under God did his utmost even to soothe the cold dead ear of death."

It was followed by some verses adapted from Alexander Pope and a Bible quote, adding even more to the bill. The man spared no expense, and it’s no wonder—he apparently had no intention of paying back the loan. The female stranger’s husband skipped town without paying doctor bills, lodging bills, or funeral and burial fees (he did leave behind some currency, but it was forged). And when he left, he took more than his wallet with him—he also took his wife’s identity.

Rumors ran rampant, even 70 years later: In 1886, the Lawrence Gazette reported on several theories, including the popular notion that the woman was really Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of Aaron Burr. Alston had been lost at sea around 1812, but conspiracy theorists speculated that she faked her disappearance to escape a loveless marriage. “Why the stranger’s husband would permit no one to see her face after she was dead gives rise to the supposition that he may have feared its recognition by those who looked upon it,” the Gazette said.

Outlandish? Perhaps. But even more so is the tale that the woman was actually a man—Napoleon Bonaparte dressed in drag, to be exact, attempting to escape his exile.

Yet another story declared the woman was named Blanche Fordan, and the man claiming to be her husband had actually hypnotized her into marrying him, though she really loved another.

Sadly, if you're looking for answers, you're going to be disappointed—we still don't have any. The female stranger remains as mysterious today as she was 200 years ago, although her grave has since become a local tourist attraction.

The Greenbrier Bunker of West Virginia

If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home. This week, we head to West Virginia, the home of Star Wars VII co-writer, Lawrence Kasdan, Barney Fife himself, Don Knotts, and Morgan Spurlock, the guy who ate nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days. 

The Greenbrier Bunker of West Virginia

Nestled in the mountains of southeast West Virginia is White Sulphur Springs, a small town of just over 2000 people. The main attraction in White Sulphur Springs is The Greenbrier, a 157-year-old hotel for the rich and famous, with amenities like five golf courses, a casino, tennis courts, spa treatments—and a secret underground bunker built to provide a safe haven for the Legislative Branch of the U.S. Government in the event of all-out nuclear war.

Built between 1958 and 1962, under a covert project codenamed “Greek Island,” the two-story, 153-room, 112,554-square foot reinforced concrete bunker was built into a hillside around 60 feet under the West Virginia Wing of the hotel.  While it was never used as a secure location for Congress as intended, it was held at-the-ready until 1992, with 75,000 gallons of water reserves, and over 40,000 gallons of diesel fuel to run three generators that could power the facility if the main electrical grid went down. A large air conditioning unit kept the air contaminant-free and an incinerator would have been used to dispose of garbage and biological waste.

As technology advanced in the ensuing years, new equipment was brought in and installed. To keep the bunker at such a ready state, it was staffed 24/7 for 30 years by a team of government employees operating under the guise of TV repairmen for the hotel.

In order for the government to continue working after the evacuation of Washington D.C. in the event of nuclear war, the bunker was built with a professional studio for radio and television broadcasts, complete with a variety of background photos that gave the impression the speaker was still in Washington.

In addition, the House of Representatives and the Senate each had separate meeting rooms, as well as a large hall for joint assemblies. These conference rooms were hidden in plain sight—they could be booked by hotel guests for special events, under the belief that the rooms were just part of the West Virginia Wing. Little did they know there were secret wall panels that concealed blast doors as large as 18 tons that led to the rest of the compound. 

To accommodate the 1100 people that could potentially live there, bunk beds were installed in 18 dormitories, and a fully-stocked cafeteria was prepared to make meals for up to 60 days. If more food was needed, thousands of military-grade Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) were stocked along the 430-foot tunnel that led into the facility from the main entrance. Complete medical facilities were on-site, including an operating room, ICU, and an infirmary that could hold 14 people, all manned by a staff of 35.  

Every one of the four entrances to the bunker was protected by a set of blast doors, including the largest that was 12 feet by 15 feet of steel and concrete, and weighed 28 tons. However, the door was so well-balanced on its 1.5-ton hinges that it could be opened and closed by a single person.

Although the bunker remained secret for 30 years, there were whispers of its existence around White Sulphur Springs and among the staff at the hotel. Contractors involved in the construction were suspicious of the 50,000 tons of concrete that were poured at the site, and workers remember the blast doors being installed, but no one could ever confirm just what they were building. Many told their story, but it wasn’t until May 1992 when reporter Ted Gup of The Washington Post wrote about the Greenbrier Bunker that these stories were given legitimacy. Shortly after Gup’s story was published, the U.S. Government verified the existence of the bunker—then promptly shut it down. By July 1995, the facility had been turned over to the hotel, which now offers daily tours of the bunker for its guests. 

Peruse the whole Strange States series here.

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