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Fred Harvey and the Taming of the West

My first experience of Fred Harvey’s work was as a child, driving with my family across Illinois. Every now and again, the highway is crossed by an oasis, a structure that bridges the highway and offers gasoline, restrooms, and food. Today, the food is an array of fast-food places, but when I was young, the entire dining area was a Harvey House Restaurant. Fred Harvey’s restaurants were nice places, with white tablecloths and good food. In the 1950s, people who weren’t even traveling would go to the oases to eat at Fred Harvey restaurants.

By the time I was experiencing them, the restaurants were run by Harvey’s sons, as Harvey had died in 1901. But Fred Harvey was famous, not only in his day, but long afterwards. He was the man who invented the restaurant chain, but more than that, he was the man who tamed the wild west.

During the Civil War, Harvey, who had experience in the restaurant business, had witnessed the importance of railways but also saw that feeding travelers was a real problem. (This was before trains had dining cars.) He came up with the idea of creating and running restaurants in train depots, starting with the famous Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railway, which connected Kansas (Atchison and Topeka) with the rapidly opening West. He brought in fine china and imported linens, as well as good cooks, but the juicy steaks the menu featured were not the key element of his operation. He brought in hundreds of Harvey Girls to serve in the restaurants. Knowing of the serious shortage of females on the frontier (and at this time, Kansas was still the frontier), many single women were eager for the opportunity the restaurants afforded. Uniforms (iconic outfits with black dresses and starched white aprons), accommodations, and transportation were all supplied, as well as a salary. Contracts simply required the girls to work for one year before leaving to accept a marriage proposal. Starting in Topeka in 1876, by 1891, Harvey had 15 locations.

The restaurants and their efficient, well-trained servers became so much a part of Western culture that they became the subject of a 1946 movie titled (not too surprisingly) The Harvey Girls, starring (among others) Judy Garland. The movie’s best-known song, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” won an Academy Award.

Here’s a trailer for the movie, just to give you an idea how big Fred Harvey’s idea was.

If you want to know more and happen to be in Kansas, there is a National Fred Harvey Museum in Leavenworth. Alternatively, you could pick up Stephen Fried’s book, Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West—One Meal at a Time (Bantam; 2010).

But it is a remarkable bit of history.

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