The son of a lanky sheet metal worker from Northfield, Minnesota, Fran Hall grew up during the Great Depression and became an unlikely globe-trotting chronicler of the most epic road trip of all time.
Mobile home company Airstream hired Hall in 1963 to shoot photos and film during a 14-month advertising campaign in 31 countries that featured a caravan with dozens of shiny silver trailers traveling 35,000 miles overland from Singapore to Portugal.
The dizzying journey – with stops at the Taj Mahal, Mount Everest, the Parthenon, Israel, Iran and Moscow’s Red Square – came during a tense global period between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Traveling in a caravan with his wife Tallie, Hall captured everything on film – from Cambodian temples to onion-shaped cathedrals near the Kremlin.
“We were in Moscow for about a week and very quickly ran out of things to see,” Hall said in one of his many letters to Northfield News editor Maggie Lee. “We were being followed everywhere, so it wasn’t much fun.”
Now, nearly 60 years after her hike, the Northfield Historical Society has invited a gathering of Airstreams to descend on her southeast Minnesota town June 23-26 in conjunction with a new exhibit: “Fran Hall: Tin Can travelers”.
The exhibit of Hall’s photos and excerpts from his letters will run through December.
“The photos are unique for the juxtaposition of modern inventions rolling past archaic ruins and regal architecture,” according to Airstream’s website. “The contrast was worth documenting – nothing like this had ever been done before.”
Hall called his journey “the journey of a million lives”. Shortly before his death in 2010, two weeks before he turned 96, he wrote a letter to Lee, saying, “My life has been fascinating all along.”
Born in 1914, Francis William Hall was listed as the second of nine siblings in the 1930 census – living along the banks of the River Cannon in Northfield.
He attended nearby St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges, but depression kept him from graduating, according to Lee. He was working at the Art Floral shop in Northfield when the Second World War broke out, but his attempts to join the army or navy were rejected due to a hernia.
This did not prevent him from contributing to the war effort. Employed by Honeywell and trained at the University of Minnesota, Hall worked with precision bomb technology and spent time in England teaching military leaders how to use cameras to locate targets.
In 1940 he married Nathalia (Tallie) Rundhaug, the child of a minister at South High School in Minneapolis. After the war, Hall became an acclaimed nature photographer for the National Audobon Society and Disney, specializing in close-ups of insects.
Hall’s infatuation with Airstreams began during a rainy spell in his tent, snapping nature photos in northern Wisconsin — and getting soaked. He noticed an Airstream nearby and decided he needed one. Tallie suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, and Hall made a deal under which he would include footage of Airstreams in his nature films in exchange for use of one of the trailers.
“I had to take care of her, do film and photos, take care of the trailer and take care of some meals,” he said. “The trip was very difficult.
Tallie died in 1983 at age 65, but Fran was thrilled to have been on the big trip 20 years earlier, which he called “a wonderful thing that very few people experience”.
According to research by Cathy Osterman and Travis Farrington of the Northfield Historical Society, traversing the treacherous switchbacks of the Khyber Pass en route from Pakistan to Afghanistan proved risky for the Halls.
Ignoring orders not to stop at the top of the pass, Hall got out to take pictures, then collided with an Afghan car. His passport was seized but the US consul intervened and the Halls were allowed to travel to Iran.
After visiting the Dead Sea, the Western Wall and other ancient sites in the Middle East, the Halls came across three hanged bodies, punished by the Syrian dictatorship in Damascus.
“It scared me,” he wrote before heading to Turkey.
Their journey began in 1963 when they sailed from Los Angeles to Japan and then flew to Singapore. The authorities in Burma, now Myanmar, could not guarantee their safety, so the caravan split up. Some flew while others sailed to India – “one of the weirdest and most exciting countries in our 35,000 miles of driving,” Fran said.
They eventually made their way to Nepal, Russia, France and saunas in Finland – returning from Portugal to Miami, then driving to Los Angeles to complete their world tour. They had left a car in Los Angeles, and from there they drove home to Northfield.
After Tallie’s death. Hall moved to Boulder, Colorado, where he used wood he collected on his travels to create inlaid, lathe-turned bowls – photographing sunsets and wildlife until he was 90.
Curt Brown’s Tales of Minnesota History appear every Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at [email protected] His latest book looks at Minnesota in 1918, when flu, war, and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.