A Mighty River of Jackalopiana

An excerpt from Michael Branch's new book, On the Trail of the Jackalope. In this scene from Chapter Five, Branch visits South Dakota's notorious Wall Drug and marvels at the plenitude of horned rabbit bric-a-brac.

Whether we consider jackalopiana to be art, kitsch, or camp, what is most impressive is how much of it there is and how long it has remained popular with a wide audience. And no single establishment has done more to disseminate all-things-jackalope than South Dakota’s celebrated Wall Drug Store. As an aficionado of jackalopiana, I felt it essential that I make a pilgrimage to what is unquestionably the world’s most famous jackalope emporium. Carving out a few days after attending a convention in Boulder, I retraced my earlier route up I-25 from Colorado through eastern Wyoming, skirting western Nebraska and again doubling back through Spearfish and Rapid City. Not long after crossing the South Dakota state line I began to spot the celebrated Wall Drug road signs which may be seen for hundreds of miles in all directions on every route approaching the little town of Wall (population 814). This ad campaign began back in 1936 and the signs remain a delightful throwback to a bygone era: each is made of wood, hand-painted by local artists, and features anachronistic messages like “Wall Drug: Free Ice Water.” I can only imagine what a novelty that cold water would have been during the Great Depression, when Wall Drug sat along a packed dirt road leading family jalopies out into the scorching Badlands beyond town.


Courtesy of Konrad Summers for Creative Commons, https://www.flickr.com/photos/tkksummers/4713523804

Given Wall Drug’s outsized reputation as one of the most famous roadside attractions in America, I’m surprised to arrive in Wall and find it little more than a huddle of modest shops along a short but wide main street. Railroad tracks run nearby, while five looming grain silos dwarf the whistle stop. Quite out of scale with the town, Wall Drug encompasses 76,000 square feet and hosts more than two million visitors each year. When summer comes, two hundred people—almost a quarter of the town’s population—will serve as Wall Drug employees during peak season. My meeting today is with Rick Hustead and his daughter Sarah. Rick is third generation, having come into the business through his father, Bill, and the store’s founders, his grandparents, Ted and Dorothy.

There’s nothing quite like stepping through the doors of Wall Drug. Inside what would otherwise be a cavernous space are many small, individual shops, each featuring a different theme. There is a tack store, T-shirt store, jewelry store, bookstore, some western-themed spaces, a cafeteria (complete with the free ice water advertised on the famous road signs), a narrow room dedicated to the history of the store, even a traveler’s chapel. Each space has a distinct feel, and each is stuffed with merchandise—so much so that the crammed shops must be navigated carefully, and I often turn sideways to avoid bumping a rack of one item or a display of another. Every wall is plastered from floor to ceiling with something, with anything, with everything. While Wall Drug’s keychains, coffee mugs, and stuffed animals are familiar to any road tripper with an appetite for kitsch, the labyrinthine vastness of this place is bewildering.


Courtesy Michael P. Branch

After wandering the maze of Wall Drug a while I happen upon a wall of jackalope shoulder mounts for sale. I find the display a little disconcerting, as it consists of sixteen jackalopes arranged in a long, unbroken row above a wide doorway. Only then does it occur to me how accustomed we are to seeing jackalope mounts one at a time, perhaps above a bar or pool table, and consequently I find this imposing phalanx of glassy-eyed antlered bunnies disquieting. While there is some variation evident in the antler shapes and the hue of the fur, the jackalopes look too much alike, as if a unique beast has been cloned, resulting in the stamping out of sixteen nearly identical twins. I’ve learned from studying Herrick family mounts that each jackalope maker has a unique style, so it seems likely that this sizable herd of little freaks has come from the hand of a single taxidermist.

Backing away from the packed wall of horned bunnies and related jackalopiana, I ask around for Rick and Sarah, who soon greet me and lead me upstairs into the old office space above the store. Rick is a lively guy, mid-to-late-sixties, with grey hair, glasses, a black mustache and a friendly demeanor. His daughter, Sarah, is warm but quiet, with dark eyes, dark curly hair, and a trio of tattooed rings encircling one forearm. We chat about the Hustead family, the Depression-era origins of the store, its growth over time, and their vision for the future of this multigenerational business. Eventually I nudge our discussion toward jackalopes, for which Wall Drug has long been famous. Not only does the store sell a wide variety of jackalope mounts, T-shirts, postcards, and other such stuff, but they also have a large fiberglass jackalope statue on display in the courtyard behind the store. I ask Rick how long the iconic mega-jackalope has been part of the family’s operation.

“Oh, around forty years, I guess,” he replies. “Last summer a guy even proposed to his girlfriend on the big jackalope.”

“Why do you think the jackalope has been so important to your business?” I ask, this time looking at Sarah.

“It’s part of the mystique of this place. It’s unique, and our store is unique, so it makes sense. Wall Drug and the jackalope are each an odd slice of Americana, and I think people enjoy that.”

Rick nods in agreement. “Exactly, yeah, kind of a Wild West appeal too. The jackalope really fits at Wall Drug because it’s so unusual. I think the energy we’ve created here even makes you want to believe that the jackalope is real,” he adds, smiling enthusiastically. Rick is refreshingly earnest, like a grown man who isn’t going to let go of Santa Claus, let alone give up on his family, town, or business.

I ask about the sourcing of the jackalope mounts I’ve seen for sale in the store, and the Husteads confirm that they do, in fact, have a single supplier.

“We lay in as many as we can, because it can be rough some years,” Rick observes. “There’s not always enough fur—or, in other years, enough antlers—and we don’t like to ever run out of our signature product.”

Sarah nods. “Free ice water. Hand-painted road signs. Free coffee and doughnuts for vets. And jackalopes. That’s what we’re about. As fourth-generation I’m invested in the future of this place, but those are important links to our past. Our family history is entwined with the jackalope.” I like Sarah. She listens more than she talks, she’s direct when she has something to say, and she respects what her family has built while also bringing new vision to the future of that shared accomplishment. She’s clearly the bridge between the past and future of the enterprise. For example, Sarah serves as the social media specialist for the business, work that has included a digital makeover of the old tradition of photographing oneself holding a handmade sign that reads “X Miles to Wall Drug.” Such signs have been shared from every corner of the world, from the Taj Mahal (which, in case you’re wondering, is 10,728 miles from Wall Drug), from the Paris Métro, even from Antarctica. I promise Sarah that when I return home to the western Great Basin Desert I will include this note in my jackalope book: “1,243 miles to Wall Drug.”

I ask the Husteads if they know when jackalopes first appeared for sale in Wall Drug. I point out that while their family’s mercantile opened in 1931, the first hoax jackalope was fabricated in the 1930s—perhaps as early as 1932—just 250 miles southwest of here in Douglas, Wyoming. Although the infamous rabbit and the store that is renowned for selling it are nearly coeval, Rick and Sarah, surprisingly, are unaware of the jackalope’s canonical origin story. They do, however, confirm that their current supplier bought the taxidermy business from Jim Herrick, and they agree with me that it seems likely that the older Herricks may have supplied Wall Drug with mounts in the early years, though they can’t be sure. They also think the New York Times got it right when, in Doug Herrick’s obituary (published January 19, 2003), the paper reported that “Jim Herrick delivers four hundred jackalopes to Wall Drug in South Dakota three times a year, a small portion of his total production.” The Husteads don’t know what year the jackalope became a staple of the store’s wares, though Rick adds that he can’t remember a time when jackalopes were not for sale at Wall Drug. Because Rick’s earliest recollections of the store in which he grew up include jackalopes, we can safely say that the world’s most famous jackalope emporium has been selling antlered rabbits for well over half a century. But that only gets us back to the early 1960s. On my behalf Rick later checks with his ninety-year-old mother, Marjorie, who reports with certainty that jackalopes were already being sold at Wall Drug when she and her husband moved to town in 1951, when Rick was just one year old.

Although I’ve established that Wall Drug has been trading in jackalopes for at least seventy years, that still leaves some important questions unanswered. How and why did Wall Drug begin selling jackalopes? How many years before 1951 were they available? Was there an original supply line between Doug and Ralph Herrick and Rick Hustead’s grandparents, who founded the store at about the same time the Herrick brothers fabricated their first hoax mount in Wyoming?

As I prepare to wrap up the interview, Rick calls downstairs and politely asks one of his employees to bring up a bag full of gifts for me: a history of Wall Drug, a Wall Drug cookbook, and a stack of various jackalope postcards, which are a staple of the endless supply of jackalope kitsch packing the shelves downstairs. Thanking the Husteads for their time, I ask my final question.

“Rick, why do you think people love jackalopes?”

He hesitates only a moment before replying. “They’re super cute. They’re bunnies. They really get a response. I mean, they’re bunnies.”

Now I look to Sarah, who knows exactly what she has to say about jackalopes.

“I like them because I find mythical creatures fascinating,” she replies, thoughtfully. “I’m always hoping they are real—that there’s something magical hidden around the corner. A unicorn or a centaur, probably not. But a jackalope? That’s something that could be real.”

I shake hands with Rick and Sarah, thank them for their time and for the horned rabbit swag, and together we head back downstairs to the store. I snap a few pictures of father and daughter posing in front of a solid wall of jackalopes and then say a final goodbye. Before leaving the store, I purchase a grey T-shirt emblazoned with a logo reading “Jackalope University.” This will be my fourteenth jackalope T-shirt, but I rationalize the purchase with a silent appeal to the old maxim that I should dress for the job I want to have. I decline the plastic bag and, shirt in hand, stop for a cup of free ice water on my way out. How many jackalope mounts have passed through Wall Drug and into the hands of tourists who have disseminated them, like weird seeds, across the country and around the world? There is simply no way to know. As for the postcards and other jackalopiana forever flying off the shelves here, it must add up to a number not only beyond reckoning, but beyond imagining.

Michael P. Branch is Foundation Professor and Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno. An award-winning nonfiction writer and humorist, he is the author of more than 300 essays and reviews, and ten books, including Raising Wild, Rants from the Hill, and How to Cuss in Western. Visit his website here.

Purchase On the Trail of the Jackalope: How a Legend Captured the World’s Imagination and Helped Us Cure Cancer.