Thursday, November 15, 2007

Harvey Houses

It seems that whenever I read about New Mexico, the history of the Harvey Houses is intertwined with the history of the state. In the fictional Night Journal, author Elizabeth Crook describes the life of a Harvey Girl in Las Vegas, NM. When I read about the history of Santa Fe in Turn Left at the Sleeping Dog, by John Pen La Farge, I was reminded that La Fonda was one of the Harvey Houses from 1926-1968. I needed to learn more about Harvey and his empire, and this is what I found.

Born in 1835, Fred Harvey emigrated from England to America when he was 15 years old, and worked for his living in restaurants, on river boats, and at a railroad post office. Along the way, he noticed the plight of the poor hungry travelers, who apparently had to scramble to find meals during their journeys. In a time before fast food (imagine!), train passengers ran the risk of being left behind when they tried to eat a quick meal at a restaurant near the train station during a short one-hour dining stop.

Using his restaurant experience, Harvey opened the first Harvey House Restaurant in Topeka, Kansas in 1876. Harvey’s idea was to provide quality food to railroad travelers for a reasonable price in a clean environment with good service, back when trains didn’t have dining cars and food service along the way was either nonexistent or of low quality. Harvey's new customers appreciated having good dining facilities where the food was served on china and customers were required to wear coats. By the late 1880s there was a Harvey House Restaurant every hundred miles along the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad line, from Kansas to California. Fred Harvey even got the contract to run the dining car food service for the Santa Fe Railroad.

Harvey found that hiring men to work in his restaurants was not such a good idea, as they often turned out to be “as wild as the west was,” so he began hiring women, who soon became known as Harvey Girls. In order to qualify as one of the “Harvey Girls, the women had to have at least an eighth grade education, good moral character, good manners, and be neat and articulate. Harvey paid good wages, as much as $17.50 per month with free room, board, and uniforms. In return for employment, the Harvey Girls would agree to a six month contract, agree not to marry and abide by all company rules during the term of employment. In no time, these became much sought after jobs. When they were hired, they were given a free rail pass to their chosen destination.”

When Harvey died in 1901, his idea had grown to 15 hotels, 47 restaurants, and 30 dining car operations along the Santa Fe line.

In Clovis, the Harvey House building is still owned by the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad, which uses it for storage at the moment. Next door is the privately owned former Clovis Railroad Station, which now houses a railroad museum.

For photos and more complete information, please see:

Arizona Lodges:

[Harvey] Hotels, Lunchrooms, Restaurants in New Mexico:

Legendary Route 66; Harvey House Hotels and Restaurants: This web site gives a history of the Harvey House and the locations of all of its restaurants and hotels.

Slaton [TX] Harvey House:
This is a delightful 1992 article from the Slaton Slatonite that contains lots of details about Harvey Girls and their impact on the West, and even includes a song written in their honor. It includes a quote from Will Rogers: "Fred Harvey kept the West in food and wives."

1 comment:

Grapeshot/Odette said...

My mom was from Newton, KS, a Santa Fe Railroad town, and I heard about Harvey Houses growing up.

In 1956 I took a trip west with my Dad and we ate at the Harvey House in the Painted Desert. They served huge juicy hamburgers with a big pat of (real) butter on them. Those burgers have always defined how fantastic a hamburger could be.

I'm a New Englander (currently) who sometimes still longs for the West.