Sunday, January 24, 2016

Fred Harvey: Taming the West One Meal at a Time




Nothing changed America as much as the iron horse.  People were finally able to travel across country in relative comfort and not have to worry about the weather, Indians, or some of the other mishaps that plagued early travelers.  A train passenger’s greatest fear was food poisoning. That’s how bad meals were along the rails.
It took one enterprising Englishman to change the way travelers ate. His name was Fred Harvey and his Harvey House restaurants eventually stretched along the Santa Fe railroad tracks from Chicago all the way to Los Angeles and San Francisco—one every hundred miles.
Hear That Whistle Blow
Fred Harvey invented the “fast-food” concept long before Ray Kroc.  Passengers were allowed only thirty minutes to get off the train, eat and board again, so time was of the essence.  He devised a system in which train conductors would telegraph passenger food orders to the restaurant in advance. This allowed the restaurant staff to prepare the food before the train pulled into the station. 
From Dishwasher to Household Name
Harvey learned the business the hard way.  After traveling to America at the age of seventeen, he landed a job as a dishwasher at a famed New York restaurant, working his way through the ranks from dishwasher to line-cook.  He eventually landed in St. Louis where he took over the Merchants Dining Room Saloon.  His success lasted only a short time. The winds of war could not be ignored and after his partner joined the secessionist army, taking all the money the two men had saved, Harvey’s restaurant was doomed. 

After a series of jobs and personal losses, he eventually took over an eating
Harvey House in Barstow, CA.
house at the Santa Fe depot in Topeka.  He arranged for fresh fruit and meat to be railed in from Chicago and other states.  His food was so good that railroad officials worried that no one would want to travel past Topeka.
First Female Workforce
As the number of his depot restaurants increased, so did his troubles. Black men were hired as waiters, but this often created conflict with cowboys.  After one unpleasant midnight brawl at the Raton Harvey eating house, Harvey’s friend Tom Gables suggested a radical idea; why not replace black male waiters with women?   Harvey decided to give Tom’s idea a try.

Harvey ran ads in newspapers for “young women of good character, attractive and intelligent, 18 to 30, to work in the Harvey Eating Houses.” He offered a salary of $17.50 a month, a tidy sum for a young woman.  Soon he had all the help he needed.

The women lived in dormitories above the restaurants under the watchful eye of a house mother.  Their uniforms consisted of a black dress, black shoes and stockings, and a crisp white apron.  The women had to adhere to strict rules and were not allowed to marry for six months.

His new female staff was a great success and helped ease racial tensions. Even the roughest of cowboys and railroad workers were willing to don the required (and dreaded) dinner jacket just for the pleasure of being served a good steak by a pretty girl.
He Kept the West in Food—and Wives
That quote from Will Rogers says it all; Among his other talents, Fred Harvey not only “civilized the west” he was indirectly responsible for more than 5000 marriages. That’s enough to make you want to forgive him for inventing fast-food. Almost….

In case you're wondering, the reason I'm writing about Fred Harvey 
is because of my new book. 


Someone is killing off the Harvey Girls and undercover Pinkerton detective Katie Madison hopes to find the killer before the killer finds her—or before she burns down the restaurant trying. 














14 comments:

  1. Great post, Margaret. What a guy! Shows what one person, despite numerous setbacks, can accomplish if they don't give up.

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    1. Hi Linore, yes, it does show the power of one. I love reading (and writing) about people like this.Thank you for stopping by.

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  2. Very interesting! Thanks for the info. I love this blog!!

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    1. Hi Connie, and we love having you as a reader!

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  3. Hi Margaret. I love reading about the Harvey girls and Fred Harvey. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. You're so welcome! I really enjoyed visiting the old Harvey House pictured above and I used it as a model for my book. The dining rooms and kitchen were empty but I could just envision the Harvey Girls racing about in their black and white uniforms.

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  4. Loved this post; so well written. I've always been intrigued by Harvey girls a swish I could have been one. Ha! Must checkout the Barstow building. Is it still there? Am. wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

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    1. Hi Sharon,
      Yes, the Barstow building is still there. We stopped on the way to Vegas. It's now a Chamber of commerce and musuem. It's worth checking out!

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  5. Correction to my post! And wish I could have been there. And. It is sm wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com. Thanks

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    1. Correction to my post, too. I misspelled museum.

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  6. I enjoyed reading about Mr. Harvey. He was very inventive. It sounds like the early version of ordering online. Of course, I had heard about the Harvey Girls, but didn't know much else. This was really interesting.

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    1. Susan, I never thought of that, but you're right; it was an early version of ordering on line. But then the telegraph has been called the Victorian Internet.

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  7. Thanks for another great history lesson. I loved learning about Fred and his ingenuity and I am hoping to get to read Calico Spy very soon!
    Connie
    cps1950(at)gmail(dot)com

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    1. Hi Connie, you're very welcome. Fred was something, all right. Hope you enjoy the book!

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