Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Fred Harvey Brings Fine Dining to the Old West

I've mentioned Fred Harvey before, but I wanted to provide a more in-depth explanation of his personal goals and how he influenced the Old West. Fred Harvey and the Harvey Girl waitresses lived the American dream by creating a unique dining experience in the 1800s and treating their customers with respect.

Fred Harvey was a dreamer. Unlike most dreamers, though, Harvey's dream was also an American success story as he followed the railroads with the first American chain of restaurants and hotels, treating each of his customers as if he or she was the most important person to ever step through the Harvey House doors. 

Fred Harvey's El Capitan Diner, Santa Fe Railroad, 1940.

Fred Harvey's Early Years 

Frederick Henry Harvey (June 27, 1835–February 9, 1901) was 15-years-old when he left his home in Liverpool, England and headed for the United States to make his fortune. He worked various jobs in restaurants and eventually opened his own dining establishment. He worked for a few different railroad companies, as well. In the early days of rail travel, many restaurants at railroad stops served little more than beans and bread, and some restaurant owners bribed conductors to pull the whistle early before customers could receive food they already paid for. Fred Harvey quickly recognized a need for fast food, good food, and good service along the railroad lines. 

Postcard of Fred Harvey's Super Chief Dining Car 
on the Santa Fe Railroad. 

Fred Morse and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad

In 1870, Fred Morse, president of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, offered Harvey a management position with the Topeka, Kansas depot restaurant on the Santa Fe line. Harvey’s wise business decisions and practices soon earned him the position of overseeing all meals served on the Santa Fe Railroad lines. He was reluctant when the railroad suggested adding dining cars to their trains, but took on this project with his usual fervor and made it work. He also supervised the lunch counters added to the ferries that connected the railroad with San Francisco. Harvey founded a restaurant and hotel empire from his position as railroad concessionaire with forty-seven depot diners and restaurants, fifteen railroad hotels, and thirty dining cars. 

Montana cowboys, 1910. Even the dustiest, dirtiest cowboy was welcomed by Fred Harvey 
who would hand the man a jacket and escort him to his seat. 

Fred Harvey Set his Sights on Raising Industry Standards 

The popularity of the Fred Harvey enterprises was accomplished by treating all customers equally, as long as they were dressed for the occasion and behaved with proper manners. Harvey kept jackets on hand for the coat-less. He escorted rowdy customers out the door, but allowed them to return when their behavior was more appropriate. 

The table settings in the Harvey dining halls were impeccable, the food was delicious and served in exceptionally large portions, and the service was flawless. Harvey hired architect Mary Jane Colter to design many of the buildings for The Fred Harvey Company--including the LaFonda in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the La Posada in Windslow, Arizona--in a way that would reflect a natural setting and highlight Native American architecture styles. Harvey’s approach was a novel one for the American Old West, but his customers appreciated his high standards. 

Judy Garland stars in The Harvey Girls, 1946.

The Harvey Girls

Harvey soon discovered that male waiters did not always mix well in towns filled with rowdy cowboys so he reformed his policy to a female-only serving staff. He placed advertisements in search of single, well-mannered women between the ages of 18 and 30 with the additional suggestion that they should be both attractive and intelligent. 

The women were given conservative black and white uniforms with black stockings and black shoes. They were supervised by house mothers and had strict 10 p.m. curfews. They were paid $17.50 per month plus tips, room and board. It is estimated that over 5000 Harvey Girls found husbands through their employment. The popularity of the Harvey Girls grew even stronger when Judy Garland, who won the Juvenile Award at the Oscars six years earlier, starred in the film version of Samuel Hopkins Adams’ novel The Harvey Girls in 1946. 

Syracuse China Fred Harvey Trend Hand Painted Normandy Pattern Bowl and Plate. 

The Blue Plate Special 

Fred Harvey also originated the "Blue Plate Special. A “Blue Plate Special” is a term used by restaurants, diners and cafes referring to a daily meal offered at a lower than usual price and generally served on a blue plate that was created with sections to separate the meat entrée from three vegetable side dishes. The phrase was common to diners in the 1920s to the 1950s. Word detective Michael Quinion and his investigators traced the origin of the term to an 1892 Fred Harvey Company Restaurant menu, as explained on Quinion’s popular website World Wide Words. 

Fred Harvey Exhibit, KC Rail Experience Museum, Union Station, Kansas City, Missouri. 

The Fred Harvey Legacy Lives On

After his death in 1901, the Fred Harvey legacy was carried on by his sons, Ford and Byron. Eventually, the Fred Harvey Company restaurants could be found in train and bus stations, as well as airport terminals, and even on the Illinois Tollway. In 1968, Amfac Corporation purchased the Fred Harvey Company. The corporation was renamed Xanterra Parks Camp; Resorts. By that time, some of the hotels were demolished or closed, but a few remain open to this day.

Postcard of Casa del Desierto, Barstow, California, Postmarked 1911.

The Casa del Desierto in Barstow, California was refurbished in 1999 into museums and city offices; the El Garces in Needles, California is currently undergoing restoration; the La Posada in Winslow, Arizona was reopened as a historic hotel; the Fray Marcos in Williams, Arizona was reopened as a hotel and train depot for the Grand Canyon Railway; and the El Tovar of the Grand Canyon in Arizona and the LaFonda in Santa Fe, New Mexico are both still in operation. On their official website, Xanterra Parks Camp; Resorts credits their legacy of hospitality leadership to Fred Harvey. 

The Fred Harvey House in Leavenworth, Kansas. Photo by Rntwerner.

Plaque outside the Fred Harvey House. Photo by Makuakane. 

  • Duke, Donald. Santa Fe: The Railroad Gateway to the American West. Golden West Books: California, 1997. 
  • Foster, George H. and Weiglin, Peter C. The Harvey House Cookbook: Memories of Dining Along the Santa Fe Railroad. Longstreet Press: Atlanta, 1992. 
  • Henderson, James David. Meals by Fred Harvey. Texas Christian University Press. Fort Worth, 1969. 
  • Morris, Juddi. The Harvey Girls: The Women Who Civilized the West. Walker Publishing, 1994. 
  • Poling-Kempes, Lesley. The Harvey Girls, Women Who Opened the West. Paragon House: New York, 1989. 
  • Quinion, Michael. “Blue Plate Special.” World Wide Words. 
  • The Harvey Girls. Dir. George Sidney. MGM, 1946. 
  • Weiser, Kathy. "Harvey House Hotels and Restaurants on Route 66.." Legends of America. 
  • Wheeler, Keith. “Fred Harvey’s gallant girls and fine food.” The Old West: The Railroaders. Time Life Books. Canada: 1973. 


Kathleen Jennette said...

The Harvey Girls, a favorite of mine.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Me too! I knew about Fred Harvey and how he changed the face of the West from a very young age and all because of that movie (every since I was a child, when I would watch or see something I'd never heard of before I'd run to the library with my best friend and we'd look it up. We were book hounds.) I loved the idea of young women traveling West to work, but also to look for husbands and settle into this wild land. It reminded me of mail order brides--a bit exciting, surprising, and daring. Judy Garland is wonderful in this film.

Danica Favorite said...

Wow, that's really interesting. I never knew there was such rich history behind the Harvey girls!

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Isn't that interesting? I've thought about this quite a bit. I think Fred Harvey did these young women a tremendous favor. In addition to providing them with jobs, security, and as much safety as possible in the Old West, he made it perfectly clear that they were to be treated with respect at all times. Therefore, if they did meet someone and fall in love, that man knew from the start that the Harvey Girl had standards, she had expectations, and he had better live up to them! Hmm. I might need to write on this one some more! Lol! It's a fascinating topic--he really did put a tremendous amount of thought into his work, the people who worked for him, and his customers.

Anonymous said...

Fred Harvey not only changed dinning to better standards in the West , he had a major impact o the history of the handmade arts of the Southwest Indians. For instance, the Indians made their rugs and blankets out of browns tans wool . The Easterners wanted brighter colors , so Harvey had dyes brought to the Indians to dye the wool thereby making the colorful rugs and blankets wanted by the traveling Easterners and others. All art and potter was also impacted by the demands for brighter colors.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

That is fascinating! Would you be interested in sharing your source? Or, perhaps guest blogging? I'd like to learn more about this topic. I've never heard this before. I missed the recent Harvey Girls presentation at the Santa Fe Museum and was so disappointed! Fred Harvey has fascinated me since I first saw the film starring Judy Garland.

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...