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Wild Women Of The West: The Harvey Girls

An elite group of women, the Harvey Girls were noted for neatness of dress, modest demeanor, and graceful manners...

June 23, 2020

More than two dozen women adorned in black poplin skirts with matching blouses, stiff white collars and aprons and sporting sleek, shiny hair fashioned into a tidy bun, busily hurried about a Santa Fe Railroad restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1879.  The gruff, rugged cowhands who were the patrons of the establishment looked out of place at tables covered with European linens, cut crystal glasses, and fine China place settings.  Dressed in their Sunday suits, the men were on their best behavior as they waited patiently for the exceptional food they were about to be served.  The reason for dusting off their manners and sitting up straight with their unruly hair slicked back had more to do with the waitresses serving them than the food or the ambiance.

The attentive wait staff were known as the Harvey Girls.  They were part of an elite group of women brought to the coarse west to offer culture and fine dining experience to a part of American void of such experiences.  Another important component to the venture, started by English businessman Fred Harvey in 1876, was the possibility of matrimony. Harvey’s first chain of restaurants was geared for railroad passengers and cowboys lacking sophistication.  It was Harvey’s hope to civilize the wild west not only with good food but by introducing polite, well-groomed, single women to bachelors living on the lonely frontier.

One of the most interesting and important results of Harvey’s system was the matrimonial feature.  He insisted upon having good looking waitresses and most of them were selected by his sister in Michigan.  According to the May 18, 1891 edition of the Albuquerque Morning Journal newspaper, of the five or six thousand individuals Harvey employed more than half were women.  They came from various Easter cities and were not only looking for a job but a husband.  Fred Harvey acted as a matrimonial agent of sorts.

The Harvey Girls were noted for neatness of dress, modest demeanor, and graceful manners.  They looked extremely attractive to ranchers, miners or other bachelors who didn’t see a woman more than twice a year.  The girls were housed in dormitories presided over by house mothers.  They were looked over as carefully as boarding school students at the female seminaries in the East.  Many of the Harvey Girls were former school teachers.  They worked twelve-hour shifts and made $12 to $25 a month.  They were provided room and board, vacation, and travel expenses.  Will Rogers is quoted as saying in 1968 that “Fred Harvey and his girls kept the West in food and wives.”  One legend perpetuated by Rogers was that 20,000 of the comely waitresses wound up as brides to western ranchers, cowboys, and railroad men.

Harvey never expected to keep a girl more than three or four months and encouraged the marriage of his employees provided the parties of the first part were sober and honorable men.  He took great satisfaction in the happiness and prosperity of the protégés and every town along the line of the Santa Fe Railroad from Missouri to California you would find boys named after him.  Some of the waitresses did indeed marry very well.  One became the wife of the richest ranchman in northern Texas; others married cattlemen of large means and had bright futures.  Those girls who did marry well encouraged other girls from their hometowns to come and take a chance. Every one of them became a perpetual employment agent for Fred Harvey, who never refused a place to a wealthy, industrious good-looking girl.

Except for one tense situation that occurred in Deming, New Mexico in 1910, neither Harvey nor his girls experienced any trouble in any of his establishments.  A report in the May 18, 1911 edition of the Albuquerque Morning Journal described the scene that played out between Fred Harvey and a few boisterous cowboys.

“One day shortly after we had opened up the hotel and restaurant a party of cowboys traveling from Las Vegas, New Mexico invaded the business and they were full of beer,” a rancher witness recalled.  “They started riding around the park in which the restaurant was situated, yelling, and shooting off their guns.  Mr. Harvey, who was taking his dinner, stood it for a while but finally threw down his napkin and started for the scene of the trouble.  Before he got into the park the cowboys were off their horses and had gone into the billiard room where Pete, a six-foot westerner, who also had a saloon in Kansas City, was bartending.

Pete was a native fellow and had decorated his bar with Indian relics and various curios he had picked up in his travels.  The cowboys got onto them at once and began shooting up the curios.  Then they began shooting at the bottles on the sidebar to see if they could shoot the necks off and were engaged in that activity when Mr. Harvey entered.  He grasped the situation and turned to face the men boldly he said to them in a friendly tone, “Boy, put up your guns.”  One of the cowboys snapped back, “Who the hell are you?”  “My name is Fred Harvey,” Harvey replied, “and I own this place and will not have any rowdiness here.  You are welcome to come here as often as you please and stay if you like as long as you behave like gentlemen.  But if you don’t act like gentlemen you can’t stay, and you can’t come again.  Now, damn you, put up your guns and have a drink with Fred Harvey.”

One of the men called Red John, who worked at the hotel afterwards, commenced to cursing and Harvey grabbed him by his collar, jerked him over the counter and held him down on the floor sternly and said, “You mustn’t swear in this place.”  Just then one of the cowboys called out, “Fred Harvey is a gentleman” and that ended the dispute.  Mr. Harvey set up drinks for them and invited them to breakfast.  They accepted Harvey’s generous offer but insisted they cook for him.  They burst into the kitchen, lined all the waitresses against a wall and made them watch as they prepared the meal.  Red John happened to meet the Harvey Girl he would go on to marry that day.”

Fred Harvey was born in 1835 and started his restaurant business with the Santa Fe Railroad in 1876.  By 1900, Harvey’s company was running fifteen hotels, forty-seven restaurants, and thirty dining cars.  The Harvey family continued to run the company until 1968, when it was sold to the AmFac Corporation.  According to the February 14, 1988 edition of the Santa Fe New Mexican, “Harvey’s combination of fine cuisine, superb service and feminine charm helped settle and civilize the American West.  What had been a hostile and inhospitable land was transformed into an exotic leisure destination thanks to him and his girls.”

Fred Harvey died in 1901.  He was 66 years old.

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