Thursday, January 15, 2015


South Dakota has personality, no question about that, and it's not just its natural features that make it unique. We spent some time in three of its cities (burroughs? villages? Somehow "cities" doesn't seem quite right.)

Located just south of the Crazy Horse Monument, Custer is the oldest town founded by European-Americans in the region. It gets its name from--who else?--General George Custer, who led a cavalry unit that discovered gold there in 1874. A couple of years later, a bigger strike was found in Deadwood Gulch, and this settlement was all but abandoned. Today it has a population of just over 2,000, and its claim to fame is the painted buffaloes (their term, not mine) that adorn many of its corners, appear in front of businesses, and can even be found guarding homes. Each is painted by a different American artist:

The next ones are my favorites:
  Mount Rushmore and sculptor Gutzon Borglum on one side . . .
 . . . with paintings of the four Presidents on the other:

 Even the Corner Church of Christ has its own buffalo, and a spectacular one it is:

We noticed several signs like this one. Apparently there are a lot of cowboys who want their picture taken atop a bison: 
However, it seems that Cosmo didn't get the message:

There is a lot to love about Custer. These magnificent horse statues hang out in front of a candy store:
 A mural on the side of a building reminds tourists they are walking in the footsteps of Doc Holliday, Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James, Calamity Jane, and Wyatt Earp:

A really nice mural of the Badlands and surrounding area graces the side of a grocery store:
 . . . and that grocery store is a tourist attraction all by itself. While buffalo meat is no surprise, I wouldn't have expected natural, organic food, nor would I have guessed in a million years that kuchen is the State Dessert of South Dakota.
 These "Memorial Benches" that we've seen in several places in South Dakota are really awesome. Mr. Stender, who died just shy of his 67th birthday, must have been a driver for a logging company:
 With the buffaloes, the outlaws, and the truckers, there is definitely a lot of testosterone in Custer:

I'm just going to say it right upfront: Wall Drug is one of the tackiest places I have ever been. Honestly, I can't understand its international appeal.In the middle of nowhere, it somehow manages to draw in two million visitors a year. 
Lots of grain, not a lot of people
Of course, it's hard to miss its advertising, which consists of billboards placed ten-to-a-mile for twenty miles leading up to the "town." (Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but really, only slight.) 

It was this bit of genius that put Wall on the map. Purchased by Ted Hustead in 1931, Wall Drug served a total of 231 residents of Wall. His wife Dorothy got the idea to give away free ice water to tourists on their way to Mount Rushmore, which had just opened 60 miles away, and soon the customers began to flock to their store.

  Got the idea yet? I could put up a few more.

Here is what all the fuss is about:

Yep. It all looks pretty much like this inside. Well, no worries because we had also seen signs for buffalo burgers, buffalo hot dogs, and homemade pie. We decided to skip much of the kitsch and go for the good stuff, served in this classy dining room:

Our waitress delivered what was without question the worst buffalo-related meal we have ever had. Nothing else even comes close. The buffalo patty tasted like it had been on the grill since the day before. It not only didn't taste like buffalo--it didn't taste like meat.

I don't even need to comment on this "buffalo hot dog" except to say that yes, that is supposed to be a bun wrapped around it, and no, it's not supposed to be jerky.

Wall Drug did have three redeeming parts, although I wouldn't call any of them spectacular enough to draw us back for more. The first was quite a nice bookstore. It was such a surprise to find it that I didn't take any pictures. It was full of local literature, books written about the Dakotas, wonderful children's books, and bestsellers. I give the bookstore an A.

The second bit of redemption was the Traveler's Chapel, a tiny church with Wall-style shops on either side, an oasis in hell.

A hand-written sign states: "This chapel was patterned after a chapel in Dubuque, Iowa, built by the Trappist Monks in 1850. The stained glass windows came from a church built in the late 1800's at our State Capital, Pierre, S.D. Beams in both chapels were shaped with an ax. The 33 brands on the candles are in honor of Ward Van Horn, deceased, who donated them to the chapel."

The chapel's simplicity amid the gaudiness that is Wall Drug was actually quite moving, and one more shock was the Byzantine-style painting of Christ.

The third redemption was the memorial bench for Poker Alice (1851-1930), complete with her life-sized statue. A native of Devonshire, England, at age 12 Alice Ivers Tubbs moved to Virginia with her family, and eventually she ended up in South Dakota. She learned how to play poker from her husband, and it is said she won over $250,000 during her lifetime, the equivalent of $3,000,000 in today's money. 
Everyone should get to meet a person like Poker Alice, and I guess Wall Drug is as good a place as any for a rendezvous. I'm glad they built her a little memorial bench, and that they put it in front of the fudge shop.
Don't forget that one of the meanings of "fudge" is "to cheat or exaggerate."  Perfect.


  1. We've been to Wall Drug a number of times over the years and have always been spectacularly disappointed. Yet we return each time we're in the area. Go figure. We've never been to Custer. Obviously, we need to do some switching up in our travels.

  2. Nice post. South Dakota has a lot going for it. I love the concept of painting the same model of buffalo, something we've seen elsewhere with different kinds of animals.

  3. I loved Wall Drug - maybe because I stayed away from the buffalo burger and went right for dessert. I enjoyed the stuffed animals and wished I had enough money to buy a whole new ranch wardrobe from the spectacular inventory of fancy cowboy duds.

    1. Good perspective, Russ. Next time I'll go, it will be with the aim to expand my wardrobe.