They had to sign contracts saying they wouldn’t quit to get married for at least six months

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 under the entire table’s place settings and made the staff set it up 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 (with the white population, that is). 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 it, 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 to let this book fall open to any page and not 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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Dana View All →

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2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Loved this book. If you can, find the movie “ The Harvey Girls” with Judy Garland, Angela Landsbury, Ray Bolger and John Hodiak.

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