Traveling with Jack and Theresa

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After Thoughts 2005

Probing America: High Tech on Back Roads

Day Six Rapid City, South Dakota, to Pierre, South Dakota

July 29, 1992
To: Meg

First, those of you who ask are getting through; Suzie, Jane, Bob, Becky. And many thanks. The real kick to the e-mail remotes is getting messages no matter where one might plug into a wall jack.

Speaking of wall, more later about Wall Drug, in Wall, SD. It is many things, and one of them is a person with a vision and lots of determination. We found another such person at Murdo, SD, population 364. We lunched at the Silver Café where the waitress said, "No, we don't serve beer because my mother wanted me and my sister to work here and if we served beer we couldn't." She also told us that there are 13 kids in her high school class, and she doesn't, "you know", really like any of them. The Silver was three quarters full (that means 20 people), most seeming to be local farmers. A very short fat woman entered the room while we were eating. With her were a fat pre-adolescent boy, another boy of about 8 and a black girl of maybe 11. The locals’ heads turned with one coordinated movement to follow the black girl from the front door to the counter, where the fat lady ordered sandwiches to go. The wait was long and the black girl took the little kid out to the car. When she returned, the coordinated head movement replayed itself.

The purpose of the Murdo stop was to visit Pioneer Auto Museum, an item announced by a long series of horrible highway signs. It consists of over 30 buildings, albeit some very small, which contain over 300 automobiles ranging from early 1900 pioneers to muscle cars. There is also a motorcycle collection, featuring Elvis' own Harley. It was the vision of A.J. "Dick" Geisler who started it in 1954. His son continues the place. Besides autos, it has horrible collections of everything you can think of, displayed in a sort of recreated small town consisting of out buildings with homemade signs such as Murdo Bank and Murdo Depot. However, the basic theme is a collection of autos. The man thought that people ought to be able to observe a visual history of autos in one place, and he put one together and maintains it. It is very tacky, but the important thing is that he did it. They buy and sell on the average a couple cars per week. In the parking lot was a 1940's Ford woody, acquired yesterday.

Rapid City, South Dakota

It is probably true that many of us have a private purpose which we dearly want to pursue, let along achieve. It was nice to see in the middle of South Dakota that it can be done. But then what the hell, there isn't much else to do in the middle of South Dakota and if you haven't got the will to get out, you might as well work on your dream.

And speaking of dreams brings us back to Wall Drug Store. There must be at least one of the Probe correspondents who has been there and if you have, please tell us about it. Ted Hustead had a new pharmacy degree in 1931 when he purchased the drug store at Wall, population 300. He and his wife struggled unsuccessfully to make it a going concern for five years and then she had the idea of putting up signs on the new road that they had “Free Ice Water.”

What has happened since then, is, as they say, history. Wall still has a population of 700, but Wall Drug Store employs 200 people. We had a charming conversation with one of the clerks who told us about the Hustead family (and yes Ted, who is now 89, had been in earlier in the morning in his wheelchair) and the employees. In the summer they hire 120 college students and put them up in the 30 houses the Husteads own in town and use as dormitories in the summer. In a good day 20,000 people come in to Wall Drug and gawk, buy, and generally want to be able to say they were at Wall Drug. As our readers might imagine, Jack was a little leery at such a side trip, but even he must admit this man had vision and stuck to it. We seem to be getting that message a lot on this trip!

We decided to get off the interstate and go to the South Dakota state capitol, and it is one whiz bang of a building. If they do politics anywhere near the way they shine floors in the capitol, this state is in good hands. Our local sources, two real estate agents, confirm that this state is solvent and we heard again for the umpteenth time that Dances with Wolves was filmed in South Dakota. We finished our walk around town (pop. 12,000) by going to a pawn shop.

From: Donna in Eugene
To: Meg
Date: June 30, 1992

I finally printed out days 1-5, took them home and read them last night to my housemate. Since she has never met either of you, I initially wondered if she'd be interested in hearing of your adventures and was pleased to find that she was. She laughed heartily all the way through. She said you make it sound as if these places haven't changed a bit over the last 30 years; your descriptions are just as she remembers. Carry on. I can hardly wait to come into the office each morning to access the next installment.

You may know that pawnshops are an essential part of the infrastructure (yuk!) of many Native American "communities". We didn't, and our reason for visiting the pawn shop in Pierre was that one member of the group had promised another, who had never been in a pawnshop, to take her to one. A second reason is because we observed a proliferation of pawn shops during this trip, much of which has been in Indian country. We were curious about them. Fortunately for us, the proprietor was congenial and informative. Actually, he gave us a mini lesson.

To start, he noted as he looked at the calendar on his watch that he would soon be "writing a lot of pawn". It works this way. The Native American (and anyone else, but he liked to stress his affirmative action work) runs out of money about this time of the month. The government check isn't due until after the first. So they bring in, for example, a rifle or watch. He loans them 25 percent of the item's value for thirty days. The interest rate is 30% The customer can "up it" for 30 days more, and another 30% interest. Many of his customers are repeats. He said that 75% of the goods are reclaimed.

A stiff interest rate, but he claims that he encourages his steadies not to borrow more than they need. Well, its one way to go. You've got to admit that 25 cents on the dollar is good motivation for claiming your pawn. But 30% interest. Good god, Visa only charges 21 percent.

And that's the news that's fit to print from Pierre!


original material © 2005