- Historic Sites
Purveyor To The West
To a culinary wilderness Fred Harvey brought civilized cooking—and pretty girls to serve it.
February 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 2
As the Harvey system expanded its operations to include Newton and Hutchinson in Kansas, La Junta in Colorado, Las Vegas, Lamy, and Albuquerque in New Mexico, Winslow and Williams in Arizona, and Needles and Barstow in California, it was only natural that Harvey and all the details of his benevolent autocracy should enter into the folklore of the region. It may reasonably be supposed that Harvey himself encouraged a certain amount of embellishment, for he was well versed in the uses of publicity, but the ascertainable facts were fairly sensational.
It was a source of great pride to the owner, for example, that some of the Harvey Houses lost money for a time on their initial operations. Harvey made no secret of the fact that he was giving more in food and service than he was taking in in currency. At one depot hotel there had been a steady loss of $1,000 a month until an ambitious manager came along and, with an eye to gaining the good graces of his employer, cut portions and corners until the loss had been pared to a mere $500. Outraged, Harvey fired him at once, and started looking around for a manager who would promise to lose the original sum.
The railroad co-operated handsomely to supply Harvey with the best of everything. His menus began to teem with luxuries unheard-of on the Great Plains in a day innocent of deepfreezing and with nothing but the most primitive refrigeration. Fresh whitefish from the Great Lakes began appearing in the high deserts of New Mexico. It was an age when game was still plentiful everywhere in America, and Harvey specialized in sage-fed Mexican quail and antelope fillets. The antelope originated “on line” and made its way east and west as the steamcars moved between points on the Harvey map. The Harvey chef at Florence had been lured away from Potter Palmer’s ineffable hotel in Chicago and made $5,000 a year, more than the president of the Florence bank. He paid local lads $1.50 a dozen for prairie chicken, seventy-five cents a dozen for quail, ten cents a pound for creamery butter, and was generally regarded as an easy mark.
Next to the food itself and the impeccable conduct of the Harvey Houses, the aspect of their operation which aroused the widest admiration was what came to be known as the Harvey Girls. The personal appearance and moral character of every applicant for work as a waitress was inspected by Mrs. Harvey. No Gold-Tooth Tessies or Fat Maggies were hired, and the character, intelligence, and good sense of Harvey personnel became legendary. Quite literally thousands of them made good marriages to ranchers, railroad men, prospectors, and businessmen of the Old West on the basis of acquaintances struck up over the service of apple pie and coffee; Elbert Hubbard claimed that 4,000 babies were christened Fred or Harvey, or both, by parents with sentimental recollections of a lunchcounter courtship. Fred Harvey himself was in great demand to give away his waitresses as brides; he probably appeared at more weddings than any member of Ward McAllister’s celebrated Four Hundred back in New York and Newport. Humorist Will Rogers said of him: “He kept the West in food and wives.”
In contrast to the shabby devisings of his predecessors on the ptomaine circuit, Fred Harvey’s railroad restaurants bestowed upon the business of refreshing the inner man not only the best steaks and chops available, but a method and organization that functioned with fine precision where only chaos had existed before. The routine began at the last telegraph stop the train made before arriving at a Harvey depot. The conductor filed a wire specifying the number of customers who would be arriving and indicating any special requests for food or service that might seem reasonable. At the yard limits the engineer blew his whistle to warn the chef and, when the cars were braked to a stop at the station platform, they were greeted by a whitecoated porter smiting loudly on a big brass gong and directing the customers toward the dining room.
The pretty Harvey girls taking orders from customers, who were usually seated eight to a table, arranged the cups and glasses according to a code and were followed by the “drink girl,” who poured tea, coffee, or milk. Soup or fish having been served, the stage was set for the big moment when the manager of the premises made a grand entrance from the kitchen bearing an enormous platter, piled high with steaks or a partly carved roast that was expeditiously portioned out to the waitresses and arrived at its destination still smoking hot. The business of what the French call présentation was much admired and widely reported by the awed customers. It was also a direct link with an older tradition of innkeeping that was still observed in the United States until the early nineteenth century; under its terms meals in all public dining rooms of consequence were served by the proprietor in person. Fred Harvey insisted that his managers fill the ancient function; they were never allowed to delegate it to an underling.
To counteract the legacy of suspicion derived from an earlier time, the patrons were reassured at intervals during the meal that the train would on no account leave without them and that there was plenty of time for leisurely enjoyment of the Harvey bounty. Nobody had to run for the cars with a wedge of pie in his hand.