Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Way Out West


The La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe New Mexico, the splendid accommodations at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the Union Station in St. Louis, and the coffee shop in the Petrified Forest National Monument (now a museum -- see photo above) all have impressed me greatly at the various times in my life when I've experienced them. I just read a book that puts them all together: they were originally designed and developed by Fred Harvey. Author Stephen Fried's Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West -- One Meal at a Time is a good read. It successfully combines the biography of the man Fred Harvey (1835-1901), the historic development of the American west, and the history of the once-famous hospitality company, also named Fred Harvey, that he founded and that continued for decades under the management of his family after his death.

I knew two basic things about Fred Harvey before I read the book. First, I was aware that there were many restaurants and hotels by that name at some time in the past, which turns out to have been the era of development of tourism along the route of the Santa Fe railroad. Second, I understood that Fred Harvey Indian stores had traded for some of the highest quality rugs, pottery, and other artifacts, and had encouraged the Indians to develop their craft traditions.

Here are several additional interesting things I learned about the man and his company:

Harvey began by creating a chain of restaurants along the rail lines, where travelers could buy reliable meals without being cheated. He continued by improving the food and service in a number of ways, and by working with Pullman to develop dining cars when train technology made it possible to walk from car to car, and made the interiors of the trains more pleasant. His endeavor included many measures to ensure consistent quality, making Fred Harvey the first restaurant chain and a model for some that followed.

At the end of his life, Harvey and his sons began to expand into tourist hotels, and particularly to create the still-amazing hotels and tourist facilities at the Grand Canyon, the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, and a few other spectacular places. They also took over all concessions at central rail terminals such as the Union Station in St.Louis that I remember. After the Depression, the only profitable part of the company was at the Grand Canyon, and the rest slowly shut down.

The Harvey company was ahead of its time in hiring women. The wait staff of the restaurants from quite early-on was entirely female, in jobs that had previously been mainly for men. These waitresses received intense training and promised to remain in service for a certain time (after which they often married the men on the frontier where they worked). Known as "Harvey Girls," they wore super-clean white aprons, and upheld the high standards set by Fred Harvey.

Women were hired not only as waitresses, but also in other roles unusual for that era. Mary Colter (1869-1958) was the chief architect and designer of the truly innovative buildings and interiors for the restaurants, gift shops, and tourist hotels for the chain. Beginning in 1902 she was the main visionary in developing what now seems to be a classic southwest style of architecture. Ironically, though, the women in the family were shut out of management by one inflexible member of the Harvey male line.

Finally, in 1946, the Fred Harvey heirs cooperated with the making of "The Harvey Girls," a Judy Garland movie about the early days of the chain. The movie was extremely popular (the book notes that it made more money in its initial year than the Santa Fe railroad, which was sliding into oblivion by then). The best-known song, "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," won an Academy Award. Like many films, this one cemented the collective memory of an era that was just about finished. I admit that I had not heard of the movie, though I do know the song.

I loved the book. Its appendix includes recipes from published Fred Harvey cookbooks and from surviving manuscripts used by the cooks in the restaurants, many of whom were brought over from Europe to innovate combinations of classic recipes with southwest cuisine -- especially at the La Fonda in Santa Fe. (In other words, the Coyote Cafe wasn't the first to put Santa Fe on the culinary map.) I may try some of them!

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

Interesting -- my only connection with Harvey was "The Harvey Girls" which I have always loved (but then, with Judy and Ray Bolger, what's not to love?!

My verification work is furamyxq and if I could only have had those letters for last night's Scrabble game!