Desert Waysides: Burton Frasher's California Route 66

Burton Frasher
Photographer Burton Frasher (1888-1955) was dubbed the “Postcard King of the West.” He combined a passion for automobile travel and photography into a postcard business that proved popular with motoring tourists of the 1930s and 1940s. Frasher’s photographs are a fascinating visual resource of a dynamic period in the history of modern California and the West.

Burton Frasher (pronounced Frasier) was born in Colorado the same year that George Eastman coined the word “Kodak” for his new mass-market cameras. He began working in his early teens as an itinerant crate maker, carrying a camera and making photographs in his spare time. His work brought him to the west; he married, and by World War I opened a small-town stationery and photo business in Pomona Valley.

During this time and into the 1920s, Frasher seized every opportunity to motor about the Sierra Nevada mountain range and Death Valley. The postcard side of the business evolved when a hotel proprietor asked Frasher for photographs printed in postcard format. Postcard orders placed by resort operators quickly expanded into the most profitable part of the Frasher enterprise.

Between 1920 and 1940, Frasher Fotos' success closely paralleled the rise of motor culture within the western United States. By the mid-1920s, automobiles became the preferred means of transportation for tourist travel and Frasher was an enthusiastic advocate of car touring. He enjoyed the freedom the automobile offered for exploring the mountain and desert regions of California that were becoming increasingly accessible from his residence in the agricultural region east of Los Angeles.

The early roads of the 1920s evolved into a national interstate highway system. Frasher created custom views of restaurants, gas stations, and motor lodges springing up along these arterial routes. His photographs of these roadside enterprises provide the most extensive documentation of the emerging car culture in the West. Unlike other artistic contemporaries such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, who excluded signs of the mundane, Frasher often showed nature’s expanse punctuated by the cars, trails and markers of a tourist reality.

Perhaps no other highway in the U.S. is as fabled as Route 66. It has been immortalized in song, literature, and even a TV series as the Main Street of America. Automobiles came early to the desert, following the railroad with its valuable water resources. In the early 1900s the route was known as the National Old Trails Road. In 1926 it became U.S. Highway 66, and within a decade was paved all the way from Los Angeles to Chicago. Heavy travel by Dust Bowl emigrants led John Steinbeck to label it “the mother road.” Frasher documented the remote Route 66 roadside businesses that sustained, and the natural wonders that awed, anxious travelers across the Mojave Desert from the late 1920s to the late 1940s.

As you view the photos in this exhibit, you will follow the original Route 66 alignment from the Arizona/California state line at the Colorado River, west across 236 miles of California desert to Cajon Summit, the southwestern edge of the Mojave. The selection of sights that Burton Frasher photographed along the highway focuses on the desert wayside stops and scenic vistas that motorists rushed through on the last leg of their journey from east to west. They are glimpses into the past as Americans discovered America.