Hit the road, Jack!
Although our recent road trip (see this post and that post) included visits to several spectacular national parks and some family time spent with mid-west relatives, we also enjoyed stopping at interesting and often amusing roadside attractions along the way.
The era of America’s roadside attractions exploded in the 1930s, with the expansion of the highway system. Often marketed to the newly mobile public with flashy billboards and unique architecture, they were designed to attract attention and encourage travelers to stop and spend some money. Early entrepreneurs came up with crazy ideas like Mexican restaurants topped with huge sombreros, motel rooms shaped like tepees, and countless “world’s largest” just about anything you can imagine.
Unfortunately, the 1956 Federal Highway Act and subsequent development of the interstate superhighways doomed many of these attractions. Some were completely demolished, leaving no trace. Others were closed years ago and only their run-down, boarded-up shells can be seen. A lucky few, though, have somehow managed to survive and can be visited and enjoyed today.
We were told about this (apparently) world-famous drug store by a hotel owner in eastern Wyoming. He not only gave us great pointers about the best routes for us to take on our journey across South Dakota, he said that a stop at Wall Drug was pretty much mandatory.
We began to spot billboards advertising Wall Drug (“120 Miles to Wall Drug,” “Free Ice Water,” “5¢ Coffee,” “Entering Wall Drug Country”) as soon as we hit I-90 and headed east across the prairie. Even if we hadn’t heard about the place, I think the billboards would have lured us in.
Opened in 1931, when Wall, South Dakota was a 231-person town, Wall Drug is now less of a drug store and more of a shopping mall of kitsch. It has been featured on travel shows and in international magazines and purports to take in over $10 million and attract over two million visitors annually.
Soon after leaving Wall, we began to see billboards for another small-town attraction: the Corn Palace located in Mitchell, South Dakota. Since we both vaguely remembered hearing about the attraction (and, since who could pass up seeing a palace made of corn?), we decided to stop and check it out.
The Corn Palace was originally built in 1892 as a way to showcase South Dakota’s farming community and lure settlers. It was rebuilt in 1905 when the city of Mitchell attempted to be designated as the state capitol. In the 1920s, the Palace was rebuilt once again, this time to lure tourists, not farmers, to the area.
Although we arrived too late to go inside, we enjoyed wandering around the exterior and admiring the beautiful murals made of corn. The murals, designed by local artists, are reconstructed each year. This year’s theme is the 125th anniversary of South Dakota.
After our visit we did a quick Google search to find out why the Corn Palace sounded so familiar to us. Following 9/11, when grants were being distributed by the Department of Homeland Security to beef up security at various sites deemed to be at risk, some fiscally responsible politicians felt that protecting the Corn Palace deserved a portion of the funds. In 2004, the Corn Palace gained unwanted notoriety from Jon Stewart on the Daily Show in the ensuing controversy. In 2012, the Corn Palace was featured on the Stephen Colbert Show (“A Shucking Disaster: Nightmare at the Mitchell Corn Palace”).
These are just two of the roadside attractions we enjoyed on our 5,161 mile road trip. We visited many more as our trip took us west out of St. Louis, through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and back to California. I hope you’ll follow along with us to see some of the attractions made famous by travelers past and present, as we made our way home along portions of old Route 66.