At one point Fred hires Bat Masterson to run security for one of his more out-of-the way restaurants.

Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the Wild WestAppetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the Wild West by Stephen Fried

I was raving about this book in my knitting group and wondering aloud why I’d never heard of Fred Harvey and the Harvey Girls, when Jerri said, “Well, Dana, you were born in Alaska and Fred never made it this far north.” Jerri, born in New Mexico, knew all about Fred Harvey.

I didn’t and this book was a revelation. Fred Harvey, born in England, emigrated to the US at exactly the right time, when railroads were expanding all across the American West. He went into partnership with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, back when railroads had to make frequent stops to take on fuel for both engine and passengers. Wherever that was Harvey built restaurants, quality restaurants with quality service. Fred would travel anonymously up and down the high iron (main railroad lines) and walk unannounced into the restaurants before the rest of the train’s passengers and if he saw so much as a smudge on a glass he’d jerk the tablecloth out from the entire table’s place settings and made the staff set it all over again from scratch.

When ex-Confederate soldiers made trouble for his African American staff, he replaced them with the Harvey Girls, what amounts to the first professional women’s work force anywhere in the world and who in many lonely places in the West were the only women for miles. They had to sign contracts saying they wouldn’t quit to get married for at least six months. At six months and one day many of them did, thereby helping populate the West. Fred Harvey also hired one of the first women architects, Mary Colter, who incorporated Native American arts and crafts into all of her designs and who with Herman Schweizer, another Harvey employee, was responsible for assembling the first great collection of Native American artifacts, admired by moguls, presidents and ordinary citizens alike.

You’ll recognize names out of American history on every page–Teddy Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, at one point Fred hires Bat Masterson (!) to run security for one of his more out-of-the way restaurants that was being regularly robbed by bandits. All the robber barons are present and accounted for, Carnegie, Gould, Astor. Then Fred starts building luxury hotels, like La Posada in Winslow, Arizona (where I bought this book and dined in a manner Fred Harvey himself would envy), where all the Hollywood movie stars stopped between New York and Los Angeles, La Fonda in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the scientists from Los Alamos celebrated when they built the bomb, and El Tovar, which is still going strong on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Which is a national park today largely due to the efforts of Fred Harvey, who wanted a lock on concessions, and got them, too.

Post-Civil War America was a land of infinite possibilities, a place where you could invent the skyscraper and build the Brooklyn Bridge and build railroads that would for the first time unite the states in a way they never had been before, and Fred Harvey had the ability and determination to take advantage of it. Fried has a lively, engaging style and is obviously a huge Harvey fan, and I defy you not to let this book fall open to any page and find an interesting tidbit thereon. There are also wonderful appendices, including a list of all the Fred Harvey establishments which distinguishes between those open, closed and razed, and a bunch of Fred Harvey recipes. I’m definitely going to try that Butterscotch Pie Chantilly, and I am going to El Tovar as soon as I possibly can.

Highly recommended for students of American history and anyone who likes a good read.

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4 Comments Leave a comment

  1. La Posada is my favorite restaurant bar none. I am a western history buff and their is a lot of it at La Posada plus the food is very good

  2. I worked at Grand Canyon for a number of years so I’m well acquainted with the Fred Harvey Company. The El Tovar is still a magnificent old hotel and it’s worth staying there at least one night just to get an idea of the luxury provided to earlier wealthy travelers.

  3. Guess you hadn’t heard of the musical “The Harvey Girls” with Judy Garland! Get on Netflix or whatever service you use and check it out 🙂

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