February 04, 2010

In Search of Fred Harvey - Guest Post by Tracie Peterson

Who was Fred Harvey and why should I care to search for him?  Fred Harvey was an incredible Englishman who came to America with a spirit to succeed.  He was one of the first to bring about the “chain restaurant” in his Harvey Houses.  19th century train travel was definite not for the faint of heart.  It was long, dirty, uncomfortable (many train seats were wooden without cushions), and expensive.
Add to the above mentioned problems was the issue of feeding folks.  Trains had schedules to keep – not that they did that very well, but they tried.  Water stops generally didn’t even allow folks to get off the train, and when they were allowed to make lengthier stops to take on fuel or tend to other matters, the time allowed wasn’t all that long.  Most passengers learned to pack food for long journeys on the train, but most would make a mad scramble for the local general store or pray there were food vendors on the depot platform.
Now given that some train trips from the east to the west lasted as long as weeks instead of days – depending on the weather and track conditions – that was a long time to go without regular meals.  Fred Harvey saw this situation and decided to do something about it—at least for the Santa Fe Railroad.
The Santa Fe Railroad started in Kansas. Remember the “Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” song of fame and fortune?  Harvey’s goal was to provide fast, pleasant service with waitresses who were uniformed, clean, pleasing to look at, and personable.  The “Harvey Girls” had to sign a contract promising to work for six months and not get married during that time.  They were to have at least an eighth grade education and show good manners. They underwent rigorous training to learn how to wear the uniform—how to style their hair—and how to handle customers
 Fred also wanted to provide a “cut above” type service regarding the food and setting.  In order to do this, Harvey decided it would be crucial to have every single restaurant present the same benefits and meals right down to the taste of the coffee.  In order to do the latter, he had water brought in tanker cars to each of the restaurants along the rail to avoid local water issues like too much iron or alkali.  Each restaurant was also set with the finest china, crystal, Irish linens and silver.  It was to be a fine dining experience even if it lasted only a few minutes.
Portions were to be served of only the finest cuts of beef, lamb, pork and so forth.  World famous chefs were hired to cook. Pies were to be cut in quarter—just image eating a quarter of a pie after an already generous meal.  No skimping.  Fred didn’t want anyone going away hungry, and he didn’t care about his restaurants making profits.  If they broke even that was successful as far as he was concerned, and if a restaurant started showing a profit, he fired the managers because he knew they were cutting corners.  When Fred died, it’s recorded that he told his sons, “Don’t cut the ham too thin, boys!”
The Harvey Houses were located every 100 miles all along the Santa Fe Railroad with a decided southwest and Native American flavoring.   Eventually the Harvey Houses were expanded to other lines and dining cars were added to the trains to offer “on-the-rails” service.  Fred loved what he was able to provide the public, and the traveler loved Fred.  There are a few Harvey Houses around today, and an extension of the business can still be seen in some of the National Parks.  If you get a chance to visit some of these sights, I highly recommend:
La Fonda in Santa Fe, New Mexico

  La Posada in Winslow Arizona –

 and El Tovar at the Grand Canyon to name a few.
You can actually enjoy great meals 
and stay in these wonderful hotels 
for a real historical experience. 

 Released December 2009                                                                              Releases March 2010   


brendalottakamaggiebrendan said...

Tracey, love your book covers! Do you remember the movie about the Harvey Girls with Judy Garland? It was a great movie. I wasn't aware that there were still some of the Harvey Houses left. Thanks for your post!

Tina Pinson said...

Good post. Tracie,

I've used the Mr. Harvey and his restaurants in my stores. Or mentioned them in passing. He was one of the entrepaneurs who helped tame the west or the western stomache maybe.

Your post makes me think about the Harvey Girl's movie movie and Judy Garland going to the saloon where Angela Lansbury is at to steal back the meat.

Vickie McDonough said...

Fascinating information, Tracie. I really enjoyed your Harvey House series.

Just imagine being dirty, travel worn and then sitting down to such a wonderful meal with fabulous service. I bet many a women left those restaurants with tears in their eyes.

Edna said...

great info, love books