Scenic postcards from the American Southwest were shot and sold by Burton Frasher Sr. from a studio in Pomona. Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, Lake Tahoe, Route 66 and other places were the setting for a staggering 60,000 negatives over Frasher’s four decades as a commercial photographer.
In 1966, Frasher’s son donated the studio archives of Frashers Fotos to the Pomona Public Library.
And nearly six decades later, Frasher’s grandson made an appointment to visit.
For the library staff, Chris Frasher’s impending arrival was like a visit by royalty, minus the tea service.
Tipped off, I made arrangements to be there. Images of Pomona scenes by Frasher Sr. and Jr. have been a help in piecing together local history. In 2017 I wrote about a widower who learned his 1957 wedding photos were in the archives.
Frasher showed up on schedule from his home in Joshua Tree with his wife, Barbara. The curly-haired Frasher, 67, was bemused by the press attention but happy to talk about his grandfather and father. He first wanted to ask about the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.
“So it’s not the Progress-Bulletin anymore?” he asked, chuckling. “It’s been since ’68 since I’ve hung around Pomona.”
That’s when his father, Burton Frasher Jr., moved the family to Yucca Valley, where Chris finished high school. Father and son later operated separate photography studios but teamed up on projects, just as Frasher Sr. and Jr. had done. Frasher Jr. died in 1992.
Chris Frasher admires a poster advertising Frashers Fotos and depicting his grandparents, Burton and Josephine. Burton roamed the southwest taking photos for postcards from the 1910s to 1950s. His 60,000 negatives are in the Pomona Public Library. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG) And today Chris, the third generation — “still carrying on the family tradition,” as he put it — was back. First he’d had lunch in Ontario at Vince’s Spaghetti, founded in 1945, a restaurant where he’d grown up eating.
When had he last been inside the library? The day it opened in 1965, a year before the donation by his father.
“This is actually the first time I’ve seen the collection,” Frasher admitted.
What prompted this belated visit?
Frasher was due to give a career-day talk at Yucca Valley High. He thought it might be fun to show students some old images of the region shot by his grandfather and to display a boxy 1920s camera his grandfather used, also in the library’s archives.
So he drove to Pomona.
“You know how you get an idea and it snowballs on you,” Frasher said, chuckling again. Besides, he said, “I love to drive. I get that from Grandpa.”
Frasher Sr., born in 1888, was living in Washington and traveling the West Coast making shipping boxes in the field for fruit packers when he took up photography. The avid fisherman combined hobbies by taking scenic photos while on fishing trips.
Photography “became a way he could make money and travel,” Chris told me. Riding to a town on his Indian motorcycle, camera equipment in his sidecar, Frasher would get a hotel room and turn the bathroom into a darkroom. At restaurants, resorts and drugstores, he’d take orders for postcard scenes and thus finance his trip.
A photo by Burton Frasher Sr. is labeled “Palm Drive, So. Pasadena, Calif.” The business sign to the right denotes the entrance to Cawston Ostrich Farm. The photo is in a binder at the Pomona Public Library, where the Frasher family deposited its archives in the 1960s. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG) Settling in La Verne in 1914, he opened a photography studio with his wife, Josephine. Business took off. Frasher Foto relocated to 151 E. Second St. in Pomona in 1920, adding stationery and books to the mix.
While Josephine minded the store, Burton Sr. and Burton Jr. would explore the Sierra on horseback and Death Valley by car, canteens and gas cans slung to the roof as they used topographic maps to find their way before paved roads.
“He befriended Death Valley Scotty. He would stay out at the castle and Scotty would stay with him in Pomona,” Chris said.
Frasher photographed small-town storefronts and lunch stands, churches and courthouses, bridges and dams, ghost towns, county fairs, national parks and Native people, “whatever subjects he thought would prove commercially viable on his postcards,” according to the library’s website.
A glass photo negative, probably from the 1910s, is pulled from its sleeve and held to the light. “That looks like a ranger station,” says Chris Frasher, grandson of photographer Burton Frasher Sr. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG) His territory eventually ranged from Alaska to Mexico and east as far as Texas. He hired photographers who doubled as salesmen. In 1948, the peak, Frasher Foto sold 3.5 million postcards.
But the market changed, and Frasher Sr. died in 1955 at 66 of a heart attack while preparing for a fishing trip. Frasher Jr. continued on before shutting down the dwindling postcard business.
But before closing this chapter of his life and moving to the desert, he donated everything to the Public Library.
“It was so overwhelming, the size of it,” Chris Frasher said of the amount of material. If not for the library’s interest, he said, the family might simply have tossed everything.
Yet the photos now comprise a valuable record of the first half of the 20th century, “even though (my grandfather) was doing it as a commercial photographer” rather than as a documentarian, Frasher said.
“If my dad hadn’t had the foresight to donate all this to the library, this would probably all be lost, honestly,” Frasher said.
Chris Frasher stands at one end of a row of shelving in the basement of the Pomona Public Library that houses meticulously labeled and filed photo prints and negatives by his grandfather and father, taken from the 1910s to the 1960s. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG) A state grant in 2002 overseen by then-library systems manager Bruce Guter allowed the library to hire experts, including a curator at the Huntington, to determine the breadth and scope of the collection and choose a representative selection of images.
Some 7,606 were scanned and uploaded before funds ran out, recalled Allan Lagumbay, a senior library assistant. They can be found online at http://content.ci.pomona.ca.us/index_frasher.php
While Frasher’s postcards exist in great numbers and circulate among collectors, Lagumbay, who oversees Special Collections, said his wish would be for money to scan at least the remaining photos from Pomona due to their value to local history.
Led by Lagumbay, the Frashers and I looked at photos in binders, in file cabinets and in a long row of shelving holding prints and negatives in envelopes, all neatly labeled and stored by year. There are even glass negatives that may date to the 1910s.
Chris found images for his school visit, held glass negatives up to the light to identify the settings and reminisced with Barbara about photos involving his mother and grandmother.
“This is more than I expected,” Chris said after his tour. “I’m really glad it’s preserved.”
He promised to return more often.
David Allen won’t go away Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.