June 22, 2003

Colorful photographer liked B&W

By Joe Blackstock
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

It's a hot day in 1936, and you're driving the family's Model A on Route 66. You stop in dusty Kingman, Ariz., for gas and decide to buy a postcard for the folks back in Pennsylvania.

That postcard -- maybe a Navajo scene or perhaps a view of the Grand Canyon -- probably had "Frasher" stamped on it somewhere.

Your postcard, and hundreds of thousands of others, came out of a studio on East Second Street in Pomona, operated by Burton Frasher.

Frasher, and later his son Burton Jr., operated Frasher's Inc. for the better part of a half-century -- starting in the 1920s -- was perhaps the West's leading producer of postcards.

And most of those postcards were shot by the elder Frasher as he traveled throughout the West recording scenes for his largely black-and-white postcards.
Burton Frasher Sr. (1888-1955)

And the work of Frasher was not simply lost on postcards long ago discarded by Aunt Susan back in Ohio. Most of Frasher's original artwork -- including many negatives -- remains in the possession of the Pomona Public Library.

The collection is a historical record of the pre-freeway West, from the heights of the Sierra to below sea level in Death Valley.

Frasher's collections became very important to the Department of Interior about 30 years ago when plans were made to open the recently acquired Scotty's Castle in Death Valley for tours.

The problem for the government experts was they had no idea what the interior of the lavish home looked like when it was occupied by Walter Scott -- better known as the eccentric con man Death Valley Scotty.

Fortunately, Frasher had befriended Scotty and had been allowed to photograph the interior in the 1930s. From Frasher's photos, the interior of the castle has been authentically furnished and open for tours.

Frasher had originally came to California as a boxmaker, traveling to the area where fruit was being harvested for shipping. He came from his native Colorado with a love for photography.

He landed in Lordsburg (today's La Verne) with his bride Josephine and set up shop there doing portraits and selling stationary. He later moved numerous times before opening his studio in Pomona.

Burton Jr., in a 1979 interview, said his father got into the postcard business as a result of his love for fishing and traveling into the wilds.

Apparently one Sierra resort operator suggested he use his pictures of the area to make postcards for his customers.

"The next I knew, dad was making postcards. And later, he said postcards were keeping him fishing," said the younger Frasher, in La Verne Magazine.

Every so often, usually with his little dog, the elder Frasher took off for northern Arizona or Utah or Bishop Creek to film a new set of postcards.

Proofs of these photos were assembled in sample notebooks, and later his salesmen showed them off to the owners of stores interested in selling them to tourists.

And his trips provided some real adventures.

Frasher drove a car into roadless Death Valley in 1920. On another trip he reached Bodie, the famed Mono County mining town and now a state park, before it was gutted by fire. He and his family once were snowed in for three days at Keyes Point in Death Valley.

Frasher created a friendship with members of Indian tribes in northern New Mexico and Arizona and was often afforded access to their homes and rituals that few before had seen.

The postcard business survived the Great Depression, but Frasher's black-and-white postcards had to change when store owners wanted color postcards by the 1940s.

Frasher was no real fan of color, especially since it greatly changed the economics of the postcard business, but he did produce about 7,000 in color.

One Sunday in April 1955, "The Postcard King of the West" died while working at his desk in Pomona at the age of 66.

His son, also a professional photographer, operated the business in Pomona until 1971 until he moved to Twentynine Palms. The younger Frasher died in Rancho Mirage in 1992.

The Pomona library was given the Frasher collection of perhaps 60,000 photos and postcards, though the archives has yet to be completely inventoried.

Part of the collection included thousands of negatives on highly flammable nitrate film, a type no longer used. Due to fire restrictions, most of those negatives had to be destroyed, though copies of many of the photos were saved.

And what was the most popular Frasher postcard? It wasn't shots of Scotty's or the Sierra or Lake Tahoe.

Frashers' best seller, with more than 3 million copies, was called "Native Son," a photo of a scruffy forlorn burro standing alone in the desert.