I’m intrigued by roadside attractions. What exactly compels a budding entrepreneur to say, “I will open a business on the side of an isolated highway”? Such folks are essentially trading on the boredom of the open road. Ie. Driving long stretches of freeway is tedious. People crave variety to break up the monotony; they need a place to stop, to get some refreshment, to be amused.

But how do you draw people to YOUR attraction and not that of your competitors? I mean, in America alone, we have places like Carhenge in Nebraska, Lucy the Elephant in New Jersey, the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Kansas, the UFO Watchtower in Colorado and the Cabazon Dinosaurs in California. Why should anyone stop at a plain old drug store in the middle of Nowhere-ville, South Dakota?

Well, Wall Drug is no ordinary drug store, and no ordinary roadside attraction. Established by Ted and Dorothy Hustead in 1931 during the height of the depression, Wall Drug is a South Dakota institution drawing more than 2 million visitors a year.

As the story goes, the place struggled mightily during its first five years of inception, until the Husteads came up with the idea of offering free ice water. Apparently long-haul drivers weren’t just bored, they were thirsty! And when you give people something essential, something they desperately need — for FREE – you build a lot of good will, a lot of loyalty.

Almost a hundred years later, Wall Drug is still going strong, drawing up to 20,000 visitors a day. It doesn’t hurt that the place posts billboards on the highway miles and miles away. “500 miles to Wall Drug!” “250 miles to Wall Drug!” The Husteads used the old Burma Shave model of dribbling out their sales pitch a little at a time. One sign might say, “Get a soda.” The next might say, “Get a root beer.” Then “Turn next corner.” “Just as near.” “To Highway 16&14.” “Free Ice Water.” “Wall Drug.” Now that’s advertising!

So after you pull off the highway, what do you actually find at Wall Drug? It’s hard to explain. Kind of a drug store, kind of a shopping mall, kind of an ode to Western Americana. There’s a 500-seat restaurant boasting an art gallery of western scenes which proudly offers homemade donuts, buffalo burgers and 5-cent coffee (!).

There’s a bookstore, a hat shop, and a place to buy moccasins. There are photo opportunities galore, including a mini Mount Rushmore and statues of a Buckin’ Bronc, a Jackalope, and a 6-foot rabbit.

For the little ones, there’s the Jumping Jets Water show, a panning and mining experience, a shooting gallery arcade and a toy emporium.

And of course, there’s free ice water!

Do I “love” Wall Drug? That would be over-stating things. It’s pretty tacky, to be totally honest. Do I respect the entrepreneurship involved? Absolutely! It’s like one of those old houses where the owners kept saying, “let’s build another wing, and another, and another,” without worrying if the whole structure is architecturally unified. During its nearly 100 years of existence, Wall Drug has grown and morphed and taken on a wild life of its own. If you happen to be in the area, by all means stop there. After all, no matter where you are in the world, it’s never more than “10,000 miles to Wall Drug.”

(I went to a restaurant once that asked if I had ever been there before. When I answered that no, it was my first time, they immediately brought me a free plate of onion rings. “Welcome new customer!” I’ve never forgotten that customer service experience. It’s similar to the feeling you get when Wall Drug offers you Free ice water or 5-cent coffee: an unexpected gift that demonstrates appreciation. You can’t help but wanting to reciprocate somehow in return.

What unexpected gift, service, or act of kindness have you spontaneously offered to your friends, colleagues or loved ones recently? How can you surprise and delight someone today?)