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Fred Harvey, a food entrepreneur, grew disgusted with the poor quality “greasy spoon” restaurants found near all-western railroad depots in the 1870s.
Harvey convinced the Santa Fe Railroad to let him test out his own food service ideas and in 1876 opened his first lunchroom at Topeka’s Santa Fe station.
His formula was clean silverware, fresh tablecloths and napkins and good food served promptly by wholesome young women soon tagged with the name, the “Harvey Girls.”
Many girls looking for independence and adventure eagerly answered his ads for “young women 18 to 30 years of age, of good character” to become Harvey Girls.
Despite being chaperoned and having to observe a strict 9 or 10 p.m. curfew, many found romance on their menus and married railroad men, ranchers, businessmen or Harvey employees.
The chain of Harvey House railroad restaurants were an early success as they expanded across the Midwest and West – and the legend of the Harvey Girls as “Civilizers of the West” was born.
However, by the 1950s, the increased use of dining cars on luxurious trains and diversion of passengers to airplanes and automobiles made the Harvey Restaurants less of a necessity.
The Harvey Girls gradually faded into history.
A few famous ex-Harvey Houses still exist today; La Fonda in Santa Fe, El Tovar at the Grand Canyon and La Posada in Winslow, Ariz.
“Harvey Girls, Harvey Houses and the Southwest Indian Detours: the Fred Harvey System” will be the subject of the next exhibit at the Los Alamos Historical Museum.
The exhibit consists of photographs from the collections of railroad historian Shirley Burman of Sacramento, Calif. Burman’s vintage photographs along with some from the collections of the State Records Center and Archives and the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe will be on view at the museum until the end of May. In addition, artifacts from the Harvey System will be on exhibit courtesy of the Harvey House Museum in Belen.
The exhibit will open formally during a reception following the next Los Alamos Historical Society lecture on March 9 by Vern Glover on the “Richard Dorman Railroad Photo Collection.”
For more information on the exhibit and lecture, please contact the Historical Museum at 662-6272. The museum is open from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 1-4 p.m. Sundays free of charge.