Fred Harvey and the Harvey Girls settled the American southwest
Updated: Oct 22
Staying at the amazing hotel La Posada in Winslow Arizona gave me a chance to learn more about the man (Fred Harvey) and the women (the Harvey Girls) who were instrumental in settling the American southwest. The La Posada, built in 1830, was a train stop, hotel and restaurant on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (ATSF). The train travelled between Chicago and Los Angeles. The hotel is still in use today and is also a stop on the cross-country Amtrak railway.
The first thing to do after checking into the La Posada, is to book a tour with one of the Winslow Harvey Girls. This group of volunteers conduct tours of the hotel for a small donation. Peggy Nelson was my wonderful guide and gave a history of the hotel and a magnificent exploration of the venue, including access to rooms not normally available.
Fred Harvey (1835 - 1901) was born in England. He came to New York, USA and worked as a dishwasher, waiter and a chef. Fred moved to New Orleans, St Louis and back to England, all the while learning the restaurant trade from the ground up. After his wife, Barbara Sarah Mattas, died in childbirth and his two sons dying of Scarlet Fever, he married Sally just two months later and they moved to Kansas where he lived for the rest of his life. He was appalled at the deplorable dining options available when travelling on trains. In 1876 he took over managing the trackside restaurants of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway between Chicago and Los Angeles. It could often take a week to make the trip by train. The steam trains needed to refuel and load water every one hundred miles, for half an hour at a time. In 1873, Fred offered the railway his services to open restaurants at each stop. His restaurants provided several seating options for travelers. In the formal sit-down dining rooms, a high standard of service was provided. Fine china, Irish linens and silverware were always found here, often imported from Europe. Men were required to wear a coat and tie. Lunch counters and stands were an alternative option and travelers could also buy take-out coffee and sandwiches. Efficiency and cleanliness were of a high standard. Fred Harvey would inspect most of his establishments personally to ensure the standards were met.
From 1883, Fred started to employ single, well-mannered, attractive, intelligent and educated women between the ages of 18 to 30 to work in his restaurants. They were known as the "Harvey Girls" and over 100,000 women answered the call between 1883 and 1968. They were known as Harvey Girls, not waitresses. There had to abide by strict rules. They had to be of good character, not marry for the first year of working for the company and live in dormitory style accommodation. They could not wear makeup or chew gum and had to wear a uniform. The uniform was described as a mix of a nun's habit and a nurse's outfit, with a long black dress underneath a white apron. Black opaque stockings, black shoes and hair restrained in a net with a white ribbon completed the outfit. The style did change slightly during the war years. Strict curfews and protocols were compulsory.
Many of the women later married and lived in the towns out west, raising their families there. In the 1946 movie The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland, it states, quite correctly, the girls civilized the southwest. It has also been said that Fred Harvey supplied the west with food and wives.
What made these young women leave their families and homes? For some, it would have been an exciting adventure, a chance to travel, enjoy a vibrant social life and have new experiences in days when females married and started to rear children as early as possible. It gave them a chance to earn money in their own right, something rare in the 1800s when work opportunities outside the home were extremely hard to find. ($18.50 a month plus room and board was a generous wage at the time when they first started. It would be around $3000 a month in 2023 value). If they married within the first six months of their contract, they forfeited half their base pay. If they remained unmarried during that first six months, they received a round-trip ticket wherever the train ran, and another six-month contract. (They could marry after the first contract). The dormitories even had "courting parlors" attached, where the girls could meet men without being compromised.
During the years of the great depression, this was a way for them to send money to their families. This independence gave them a chance of freedom, something they would not have got if they had stayed at home.
Orders were taken aboard the train and sent through to the restaurant ahead. This allowed the dining room staff to completely feed everyone requiring a meal in the thirty minutes of the stop. A special cup code was introduced. As one Harvey girl took the coffee order, the cup was placed a certain way on the saucer to signal what the customer required. A coffee waitress could see the code and pour the drink without any further word from the customer. A very efficient and fast way to serve people.
Fred Harvey is credited with creating the "Sante Fe" style of architecture and design. He commissioned silver and turquoise jewelry from Native Americans to sell at his gift shops as well as collecting paintings of the Southwest USA. Many of these are now in museums around the world.
At the height of his empire, he managed eighty-four restaurants and lunch counters. These were the first "chain" restaurants in USA. Not bad for an immigrant dishwasher from England.
During World War II, the troop trains were fed by Harvey Houses as they were transported via train from the east coast to California. What a welcome sight these Harvey Girls would have been to the young men departing for the war. Records at La Posada details that over 3,000 soldiers were fed in their restaurant per day.
The restaurants operated until 1968. By this stage, motor vehicles had become more accessible and affordable, the roads became more navigable and rail travel declined.
In 1926, Fred Harvey also began to offer "Indian Detours". Guests at the hotels would be chauffeured by men to Indian settlements and interesting geology sites in New Mexico and Arizona. The tour guides were college-educated women, trained in archaeology and history. Again, the Fred Harvey company was a trend setter by employing women in these roles and giving them opportunities that had not existed before.
These side tours were very popular and expanded the services the company offered.
Sadly, most of the ATSF buildings, where the restaurants were, have been demolished. Fortunately, various people across the country have restored a few of them and they have become very popular accommodation and function venues. The restoration of La Posada has been an amazing journey to preserve the original features. It is glorious that guests can enjoy staying here, as I certainly did.
La Posada Hotel
303 E 2nd St, Winslow, AZ 86047
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