Fred Harvey, a dapper British immigrant and traveling freight agent, witnessed firsthand the suffering of travelers who too often completed their journeys clutching their stomachs in misery. Harvey, a lover of fine cuisine, made up his mind to do something about the notoriously indigestible railroad fare. He dreamed of opening restaurants at depots furnished with fine Irish table linens, Belgian crystal and silver tableware where he would serve choice meats, seafood and fresh fruits and vegetables in an elegant, relaxed atmosphere.
In 1876, Harvey and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway agreed to an initial partnership on a single restaurant in Topeka, Kansas, laying the groundwork for a symbiotic relationship that would benefit Harvey and the railroad for half a century.
Harvey House Restaurants spread along the tracks like dandelions in a wet spring. Wearing black dresses topped with crisp white pinafores, Harvey Girls—they were never called waitresses—served elegant meals in restaurants all the way from Kansas to California and south through Texas. Fillet of whitefish with Madeira sauce vied for diners’ attention with sugar-cured ham, roast beef au jus and lobster salad. Homemade pies were carved into four generous slices, not six, and fresh foods arrived daily in ice-filled railroad cars.
One of those Harvey Girls was Elizabeth Hazelwood. Lesley Poling-Kempes, author of The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West, writes that Hazelwood arrived in Texas from Oklahoma with her family at the turn of the century because they had heard “it was rich down there.” Unfortunately, her Russian immigrant father’s efforts at farming in the Panhandle proved to be a constant struggle.
So Hazelwood and her three sisters and one brother moved to Canadian in hopes of a better life. There, she married and bore two children before widowhood forced her to look for work. That’s when she landed a position as a Harvey Girl.
Although Harvey’s early employees were single women recruited from the East, by the 1920s many local women—married and single—tended the coffee urns at the Harvey House in Canadian. For Hazelwood, the job was a godsend, and the other Harvey House employees—a manager, 20 Harvey Girls, a baker, a chef and several busboys—were like extended family.
“We were treated like royalty,” Hazelwood’s daughter, Sis, told Poling-Kempes. “The manager and his wife took care of us just like we were their own.”
Harvey House jobs gave women from farms and ranches a chance for adventure and a way out of economic distress at a time when few respectable jobs for women were available.
Harvey Girls worked hard. Thirty days of training taught them that they would be eternally busy—serving meals, polishing silver, brewing fresh coffee every two hours and learning the strict code of behavior toward customers. By the end of the day, they were usually too exhausted to do anything but fall into bed.
“It was just a good, clean job for a woman,” Elizabeth Hazelwood said in Poling-Kempes’ book. “It was very strenuous, but … a woman who didn’t smoke, curse or drink could get a good job if she could keep up with the work.”
Even in Texas’ dusty, isolated cattle towns, as many as four passenger trains came through daily, carrying 50 to 80 people each. Harvey Girls hustled to serve them in the 30 minutes usually allowed at meal stops. But by the 1950s, when automobiles and airplanes had replaced railroads as the main mode of travel, the era when Harvey Girls served fine meals with elegance at dozens of restaurants was over. Still, Fred Harvey and his restaurants and hotels left behind a more civilized and cultured land.
In towns where rowdy cowboys and rustic conditions were the norm, Harvey House Restaurants created a safe, pleasant atmosphere where good food, clean surroundings and efficient service set new standards. Harvey Girls contributed to the taming of the frontier as surely as the roughshod, pistol-packin’ men who preceded them.
Martha Deeringer, frequent contributor