A Minnesota photographer chronicled a 1960s caravan from Singapore to Portugal
The son of a lanky sheet metal worker from Northfield, Minnesota, Fran Hall came of age during the Great Depression and became the globetrotting chronicler of one of the most epic road trips of all time.
Travel trailer company Airstream hired Hall in 1963 to shoot photos and film a 14-month trip through 31 countries from Singapore to Portugal. A caravan of 50 gleaming silver trailers was to trek 35,000 miles overland.
The dizzying journey – with stops at Mount Everest, the Taj Mahal, Baghdad and Israel, the Parthenon in Athens and Moscow’s Red Square – came during tense times between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Traveling with his wife, Tallie, Hall captured everything on film – from Cambodian temples to St. Basil’s Cathedral near the Kremlin. He called it “a journey of a million lives”.
“We were in Moscow for about a week and very quickly ran out of things to see,” Hall wrote in one of his many letters to legendary Northfield News reporter Maggie Lee. “We were followed everywhere.
Now, nearly 60 years after the trek, the Northfield Historical Society has invited a gathering of Airstreams to descend Thursday through Sunday on the southeastern Minnesota town in conjunction with a new exhibit, “Fran Hall: Tin Can Traveler “. The exhibit of Hall’s photos and letters opened in April and will run through December 2023.
“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.”
Born in 1914, Francis William Hall was the second of nine siblings who grew up on the River Cannon in Northfield. He spent a year each at nearby St. Olaf and Carleton colleges, but depression kept him from graduating, according to Lee.
After marrying Nathalia “Tallie” Rundhaug, the child of a minister at South High School in Minneapolis, Hall was working at the Art Floral store in Northfield when World War II broke out. The military rejected him because of a hernia, but that didn’t stop him from contributing to the war effort. Employed by Honeywell and trained at the University of Minnesota, Hall worked with precision bomb technology and taught military officers how to use cameras to locate targets.
After the war, Hall became an acclaimed nature photographer for the National Audubon Society and Disney, specializing in close-ups of insects. His infatuation with Airstreams began during a downpour while on assignment for Audubon in northern Wisconsin. While soaking wet in his tent, he noticed an Airstream nearby and decided he needed one.
He went to the Airstream factory in Ohio and struck a deal under which he would include footage from the trailers in his nature films in return for using one of them. .
The intercontinental trek 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 on the way to Calcutta. Some flew in while others sailed to India, “one of the strangest countries we would be in… [and] probably the most exciting,” Fran wrote.
According to research by Cathy Osterman and Travis Farrington of the Northfield Historical Society, driving the treacherous switchbacks of the Khyber Pass en route from Pakistan to Afghanistan was risky for the Halls. Ignoring orders not to stop at the top of the pass, Hall got out to take pictures. On the way down, he collided with an Afghan car and authorities seized his passport, but the US consul intervened and the Halls were allowed to travel to Iran.
After visiting the Dead Sea and other sites in the Middle East, they came across three bodies in Damascus, Syria, of people who had been hanged by the Baathist regime. “It freaked me out,” Hall wrote.
They meandered through Turkey and Poland, took saunas in Finland and traveled to Hamburg and Paris before ending the journey in Portugal. After flying to Miami, they traveled to Los Angeles to complete their world tour, picked up the car they had left there, and returned home to Northfield.
Tallie died in 1983 at age 65, but Fran was thrilled to have taken the big trip 20 years before – a trip he called “a wonderful thing that very few people experience”.
Hall moved to Boulder, Colorado, where he used the wood he collected on his travels to create inlaid bowls and photographed sunsets and wildlife. Shortly before his death in 2010, two weeks before he turned 96, he wrote a final letter to Lee, saying, “My life has been fascinating all along.”
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.