The time has long since passed for me to expect surprises beneath the Christmas tree. Not only do I select most of my presents, I wrap them too. Which, in all honesty, is absolutely fine with me. But this year there were two unexpected gifts bearing tags addressed to me. What wonders would they behold? The first, an insert for my Nalgene bottle, was the practical gift. Apparently I missed the lesson in preschool about not dribbling down the front of yourself when drinking. It’s an embarrassing habit and one which has long inhibited my quest for hydration. This insert makes it more likely I’ll ingest the water, rather than wear it. The second gift was, of course, a book.
During our cross-country adventure I discovered a fascinating piece of history – Harvey Houses. Fred Harvey revolutionized the hospitality industry during the late 1800’s by developing restaurants and lodging along the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. Fred Harvey was a person, but also a company and a brand. He brought refinement and quality to the West – changing the face of travel and setting standards that are still emulated to this day in customer service. One particular aspect of his methodology really captured my attention. Fred Harvey needed a work force that would uphold his strict requirements for quality service, consistency, and respectability. His answer was to hire responsible, unmarried women. Harvey found himself a reliable staff, and the Harvey Girls had respectable jobs and financial independence. This mutually beneficial arrangement was quite progressive – and successful. How had this morsel of American Women’s History eluded me for so long?
To remedy the gap in my knowledge I purchased several books on our trip and read with enthusiasm. But it is my Christmas present, The Harvey House Cookbook, that is the crowning jewel. The Cookbook provides an overview history of Fred Harvey, Harvey Girls, and Harvey Houses. It also provides recipes from restaurants along the Santa Fe line. Although my children aren’t clamoring for me to make “Jellied Chicken” anytime soon, I delighted in reading about the delicacies offered more than a century ago to weary West-bound travelers.
Several Harvey Houses, under different management, are still in operation. Stay on the edge of the Grand Canyon at El Tovar Hotel and enjoy a meal at Bright Angel Restaurant (we did) where you’ll find several authentic historic Harvey House items still on the menu. In Santa Fe, New Mexico you can stay at La Fonda and in Winslow, Arizona spend a night at La Posada. Take an hour while traveling historic Route 66 to see the Painted Desert Inn for a glimpse into the glory days of Harvey Houses. Barstow, California is home to the Casa Del Desierto, a former Harvey House converted into multi-use space including museums, offices, and event rooms. If you can’t get away, but want to know more about this delightful piece of history check out some great books about Fred Harvey. You may even want to try your hand at making “Albondigas Soup” or “Lobster Americaine”!
Diary of a Waitress: The Not-So-Glamorous Life of a Harvey Girl by Carolyn Meyer – The fictionalized diary of young Kitty Evans an aspiring journalist who, due to unfair and unfortunate circumstances, has to find a job instead of going to college. Follow Kitty as she journeys West finding adventure as a Harvey Girl during the 1920’s. MR/YA -6/8
Appetite For America by Stephen Fried – This comprehensive history of Fred Harvey the man, the company, and the brand is engaging and entertaining. Reading like a novel, with clear benchmarks of well-researched historical documentation, it is a must for anyone interested in Harvey, the American West, and rail travel. Author Fried gives a presentation on the history of Fred Harvey at La Fonda which you can check out HERE. Learn more about the later years of the Fred Harvey company in a Q&A session with Fried and Daggett Harvey Jr. HERE.
The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened The West by Lesley Poling-Kempes – A history of the Harvey Girls combining oral history and well researched details. This book acknowledges the long overlooked contributions of the women who, in search of respectable employment and independence, were influential in altering the fabric of life throughout the American Southwest. For more about women who, against convention, braved the West read Poling-Kempes Ladies of the Canyon.
The Harvey House Cookbook by George H. Foster & Peter C. Weiglin – As stated above, a delightful overview of Fred Harvey the man and the company, as well as Harvey Girls, the changing landscape of the American West, and the rise and decline of rail travel in the U.S. Plus many delicious and entertaining recipes sure to whet your appetite or possibly cause revulsion to your modern dining sensibilities (anything with the word aspic is nausea inducing for me). A great complement to the Harvey history and a wonderful addition for any food historian!
Fred Harvey Houses of the Southwest by Richard Melzer – Harvey House history told through remarkable photographs of the people and places that made up this groundbreaking brand. A wonderful visual documentation of the history and diversity of the Harvey Houses across the Southwest. (Images of America series)
PBP note: Fred Harvey, at the turn of the 20th century, made another extremely progressive move hiring Mary Colter, a schoolteacher and untrained architect, to design and develop many of the Harvey House locations. For nearly 50 years. she worked in a male dominated field as the chief architect and decorator for Fred Harvey. Read more about her remarkable spirit, her building and design philosophy, and her legacy in Mary Colter: Builder Upon the Red Earth by Virginia L. Grattan