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Fred Harvey

builder of an empire based on excellent service

Fred H. Harvey

Frederick H. Harvey was born in London, England, on June 27, 1835, and immigrated to the United States in 1850. After working a variety of jobs in New York and New Orleans, he moved to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1855, where he and a partner opened a restaurant. The restaurant went out of business during the Civil War, and Harvey moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, where he got a job with the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad. In 1865, he moved to Leavenworth, Kansas. The Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad became the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, for which Harvey became a ticket agent, and then general western freight agent.

While traveling in performance of his work, Harvey saw first-hand the deplorable lack of decent meals and lodging for railroad travelers. Many stations had no dining facilities at all, and most that did served terrible food at exhorbitant prices in less than sanitary conditions. Convinced that improvements were possible, Harvey tried to interest his employer in operating restaurants for them, but Burlington suggested he contact the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, the fastest growing railroad in the West.

In the spring of 1876, Harvey took over the restaurant at the Santa Fe depot in Topeka, Kansas. Customers were amazed to find linen and silverware, excellent food and reasonable prices, and the restaurant was an immediate success. Impressed with his work, the AT&SF turned over control of food service all along its line to Harvey. In 1877, Harvey purchased the hotel in Peabody, Kansas, realizing a dream of pampering travelers with fine food and accomodations. When dining cars were added to the AT&SF line, "Meals by Fred Harvey" became the standard offering. By the time Harvey died in 1901, there were 47 Harvey House restaurants, 15 Harvey House hotels, and 30 "Meals by Fred Harvey" dining cars in 12 states. No matter which Harvey facility one entered, they were always impressed by Harvey's insistence on "Maintenance of standards, regardless of cost." This meant that the food had to be first-rate, served promptly, in fashionable surroundings, at a reasonable cost.

In 1881, Harvey replaced all-male staffs with his famous "Harvey Girls." By carefully screening applicants and then providing excellent training and benefits, the "Harvey Girls" became the ideal models for efficiency of service. The following describes a typical scene at a Harvey-run restaurant:

"A white-aproned waiter, beating a brass gong with a wooden mallet, brought the passengers quickly to the dining room door. The first course was on the table and as soon as the diner was seated, the waitress went down the table asking, "Tea, iced tea, coffee, or milk," and at the same time positioning the coffee cup at each place accordingly, so that the girl coming behind to pour the drinks knew just what to pour. The service in the dining room was table d'hote, with two choices for the main course. The plates, already served in the kitchen with meat and vegetables, were quickly placed on the tables." [Minnie Dubbs Millbrook, "Fred Harvey and the Santa Fe," Shawnee County Historical Society Bulletin No. 56, The Santa Fe in Topeka."

a Harvey Girl uniform
a Harvey Girl uniform

"Harvey Girls" were paid $17.50 per month, plus room, board and tips. They were subject to a strict 10:00 pm curfew, administered by a senior Harvey Girl who assumed the role and responsibilities of a house mother. Makeup of any sort was absolutely prohibited. Required to sign a one-year employment contract, a Harvey Girl forfeited half of her base pay if she failed to complete the full term. Most Harvey Girls, however, happily completed their contract.

The "Harvey Girls" became so well known that they become the title subject of a 1942 novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams. In 1946, MGM released The Harvey Girls, a musical starring Judy Garland.

scene from 'The Harvey Girls'
scene from 'The Harvey Girls'

Fred Harvey's sons took over control of the company upon his death (which came in Leavenworth, Kansas, on February 9, 1901), and operated it through the 1930's. When the last of them died, the company left Harvey control. The company's core railroad business began to decline after World War I, due to the rise in popularity of the automobile. To compensate for the lost revenues, the Harvey Company began packaging motor trips of the Southwest. The company enjoyed a major resurgence during World War II, providing meals and other amenities for troop trains. By the 1950's, however, the railroads were again cutting back, and the AT&SF closed many of the depots in which the Harvey Company had been doing business. In 1968, the Hawaii-based Amfac Corporation bought the Harvey Company, and continues to operate it as the Fred Harvey Trading Company to this day. Harvey hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops can still be found in resorts, national parks and other tourist-rich markets, and they still offer the same level of quality and efficiency demanded by Fred Harvey.

See Also

World War I
World War II

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This page was last updated on November 19, 2018.