Taming the West One Meal at a Time. Fred Harvey and His Harvey Houses

Posted on November 28, 2014


You probably think cowboys or settlers tamed the frontier, but actually it was Fred Harvey.fred_harvey

While not exactly a household name today, there was a time when just about everyone in Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada had at least heard of him, even if they had not yet been fed by him.

Fred Harvey rode the rails for a living during the years immediately following the Civil War, when railroads were given huge land grants by the Federal government to extend their lines – or build new ones – into the interior of the wild, wooly west.

Fred was a salesman with a chronic case of indigestion caused by eating on the run. As there were no dining cars in those early days, trains made meal stops along the way, giving passengers one-half hour to hurry uptown and grab a bite to eat. Most of the food they found at these stops was overpriced and of such poor quality as to be positively dangerous.

Fred thought there must be a better way.

images (3)He convinced the Santa Fe Railway to let him set up lunch counters in several depots, where he developed kitchen and serving systems making it possible for passengers to walk in, get a good meal at a fair price, and quickly be on their way.

Harvey initially hired men as waiters, but they were always turning up drunk or getting into fights among themselves, so he decided to try something different.

He switched to hiring local women to work as waitresses, and his mostly-male clientele liked the change. However, he soon needed more women than what the local populations could provide.

Fred Harvey then started advertising extensively in the east, offering free train transportation to his lunch counter towns if the women agreed to sign a contract to work a minimum of six months. During this period, they were to remain single and live in Harvey dormitories supervised by older women. They also agreed to conform to the ‘Harvey Way’ regarding morals, neatness and cleanliness.

The idea of a good-paying job combined with the excitement of independence, of doing something new, something different, something exciting was pretty attractive to many young women stuck in dead-end jobs and relationships.

His idea worked, and the fortunes of the Harvey House chain flourished right along with the fortunes of the Santa Fe.  In fact, it worked so well that Fred Harvey is often called the’ Father of Fast Food.’

But residents in towns where he set up business got more than a quick meal; they got a sudden influx of WOMEN.  In the female-starved Southwest, this was a bigger deal than steak and potatoes. Many a bachelor cowboy or rancher managed frequent visits to the local Harvey House, not so much for a meal but to see a particular pretty face.


Harvey House dining room in Kansas City, Kansas. (Kansas State Historical Society photo)

In many ways, the presence of these women brought a calming, civilizing influence to these Wild West towns. Most Harvey Girls were married right after their six-month contract expired. Marriages brought children, schools and churches to many a rough and tumble town.

Linen tablecloths and napkins, fine china, crystal and silver service helped, too. All Harvey Houses were family-friendly, with no cowboy roughhousing allowed. In many locations, men were even required to wear suit coats.

As the chain prospered, Fred Harvey built several elegant, full-service hotels in select towns, each located conveniently near the depot. Smaller lunch rooms were maintained in the depot itself.

Some of these hotels became quite famous as ‘destination resorts’, and remained open and popular long after dining car service displaced the depot lunchroom.

La Posada Harvey House Hotel in Winslow, Arizona.

La Posada Harvey House Hotel in Winslow, Arizona.

And much of the popularity of these hotel/resort accommodations can be credited to another type of Harvey Girl.

download (1)Mary Colter, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, was probably the premier woman architect of her time – or perhaps ANY time.

She worked for Fred Harvey her whole career, creating amazingly beautiful Harvey House Hotels filled with Native American art and the vibrant colors of the Southwest.

Posted in: Travel - Arizona