Hit the road, Jack!

Jack Rabbit

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.

Wall Drug

Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota
Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota

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.

Wall Board

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.

Corn Palace

Cornelius, the Corn Palace Mascot
Cornelius, the Corn Palace Mascot

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.

One of the murals made out of corn
One of the murals made out of corn

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.

Author: Janis @ RetirementallyChallenged.com

My blog is about travel, relationships, photography, and whatever else pops into my head (even, sometimes, issues surrounding retirement and aging).

14 thoughts on “Hit the road, Jack!”

  1. Priceless, Janis. I cannot believe you actually stopped at these places, and then took photos to prove it !!! ( which are very cute of both if you!!). It occurs to me while reading this that even ‘back in the day’ nature’s beauty wasn’t enough for travelers who needed tempting food or ‘hook’ to make the trip more exciting.

    I really enjoyed this and will certainly look at some of those roadside ‘c’mon in’ signs differently thanks to your sentimental journey 😀

    1. I can’t believe how patient my husband was with all my requests for stops! Because we had very few dates when we had to be at any specific place, we were free to go where we wanted. I think seeing these silly attractions (and taking the photos to prove it) helped to make the trip so fun and memorable.

      1. Well you both look like impish little kids in the photos. A trip with that kind of leisurely wanderlust only happens if you let it. Happy you two share that.

  2. Oh, you got to see the things we wanted to on our cross-country trek, but we were pulling a U-Haul that might life complicated. I’ve always been curious about Wall’s Drugs. I’m a sucker for tourist traps (ours on this coast is “South of the Border” in South Carolina). Could one actually fill a prescription at Walls if he/she wanted to??

    1. I can see how pulling a U-Haul could complicate matters, but we saw a lot of huge RVs just about everywhere we went.

      Yes! you can actually fill a prescription at Wall Drug although the actual drug store is a very small part of the emporium. I’ll have to check out South of the Border next time we are in your area.

    1. There really is something uniquely American about these roadside attractions. Sadly, many of them are fading away for a variety of reasons (although the Corn Palace and Wall Drug both look like they will be here for awhile).

  3. Loved this post as it brought back memories of trekking across South Dakota 25 years ago with two kids bored silly in the back seat. The billboards’ build up and Wall Drug helped break up the monotony. We didn’t stop at the Corn Palace…sorry we missed it! Thanks for this story of your travels.

    1. You are so right about that drive – it can be boring! It is probably part nostalgia and part just wanting to get off the road for awhile that prompts us to make these stops. We always enjoy ourselves, though. We love to strike up conversations with the locals and other travelers like ourselves.

  4. Thank you for the lesson in history, and adding a little personal insight! Road trips are the best! Following up or chasing down roadside attractions just makes it more memorable!

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