Biographies & Memoirs



WHILE THE MONTEZUMA’S LARGE, WELL-TRAINED STAFF WAS earning accolades, Fred’s problems were mounting all over New Mexico. One day, he received a wire from his manager in Lamy, requesting help after a “gang of gamblers and confidence men” had taken over the town and robbed all the Santa Fe employees. Actually, the thugs were now ordering all their meals at the Santa Fe eating house and then refusing to pay. When the manager finally got up the nerve to tell the men he wouldn’t serve them anymore, they pulled their guns and told him to get out of town.

Fred arrived in Lamy on the next train, accompanied by his scariest-looking employee in Las Vegas: John Stein, the hulking cashier at the Montezuma. They were sitting in the restaurant the following morning when a dozen desperadoes entered, demanding to eat. When refused service, they asked for the manager.

Fred approached them. “What do you want with the manager?” he asked.

“We want to hang him,” they said.

“Well, I hope you won’t do that, because he’s a good manager and I need him to run the place. However … I don’t need him,” he said, turning his gaze to the massive Stein, “and you can hang him as often as you like. But as long as he’s alive, you pay for your food or you don’t stay.”

Big John Stein stared at the men, unblinking, until they tossed some money on a table and left. Then he and Fred had breakfast and waited for the eastbound train to take them back to the Montezuma.

By this point, Fred was no longer surprised by the holdups; a certain number of Santa Fe trains and depots were always going to be robbed, it was just the cost of doing business. But what he could not abide were the continuing racial problems he saw at his new eating houses.

Western restaurants commonly hired black men as waiters and busboys. But many cowboys were former Confederate soldiers who had fled the South because they could not imagine living in peace among freed slaves. The cowboys’ prejudice against black workers was often more extreme than any tensions they had with Indians—whom they at least feared, and sometimes grudgingly respected.

The truth was that Fred Harvey’s black male waiters in New Mexico got little respect and often lived in fear. They had every reason to believe that, at any time, they might need to defend themselves against their own customers.

A colored waiter at the Depot dropped a huge revolver from his hip pocket to the floor of the dining hall at the supper hour last evening,” the Optic reported. “It is being discovered daily that hotel waiters are a persecuted class, and to keep off their enemies they are required to pack big guns around with them.”

In the early spring of 1883, Fred received word of a drunken fight among the beleaguered all-black waitstaff at his eating house in Raton. The manager reportedly told Fred there had been a midnight brawl and “several darkies had been carved beyond all usefulness.” There was also a more elaborate version of the story circulating, in which the intoxicated waiters had not only fought each other with knives and guns but accidentally shot and killed a Mojave spectator. Tribal leaders were supposedly demanding the life of a waiter in return. When told the shooting was accidental, the Indians declared they “would be satisfied to shoot one of the Harvey waiters by accident.”

Fred jumped on the next train to Raton. He was traveling with young Tom Gable, a family friend from Leavenworth whom he had watched grow up. The Gables and the Harveys lived on the same block of Linn Street; Fred had been friendly with Tom’s late father, Barnabas, a successful farmer, and Sally was still very close to his mother, Mary. Fred had known Tom as smart and able from the time he started working in the Leavenworth post office as a teenager. Now thirty-one, with a wife and a baby, Tom had let Fred know he had ambitions of finally leaving Leavenworth, and hoped there might be a place for him in the eating house business.

In Raton, Tom watched in fascination as “old Fred lit like a bomb,” instantly firing the manager and the waitstaff. As Tom would later recall it, Fred then turned to him and said he should become the new manager in Raton and move his young family there.

“I had no restaurant experience,” Tom said, “but one did not argue with Fred Harvey.”

The two of them talked about how the situation in Raton might be improved, and Tom insisted he would take the job only if Fred would let him try something completely different. He wanted to replace all the black male waiters with women—but not local women. He wanted to import young white single women from Kansas. He thought they would be easier to manage, less likely to “get likkered up and go on tears.”

It was a radical idea. Still, one of the things Fred relished most about management was acting on the brainstorms of his employees. He had always hired some female servers for less hostile locations—his houses for the Kansas Pacific had a few waitresses, and so did the original Santa Fe eating houses, starting with The Clifton Hotel in Florence. One of the original waitresses there had been Matilda Legere, a sixteen-year-old from Belgium, who never forgot the first thing Fred Harvey ever said to her: “Don’t throw the dishes so hard or you’ll break them.” In fact, as early as 1880, when Lakin, Kansas, was still the “far West” for the Santa Fe, there were young women on the waitstaff, including Fred’s niece, Florence.

Still, while female servers may have worked in Kansas, it was considered far too dangerous to have single women waiting on tables in forward positions in New Mexico. There were, according to the old joke, “no ladies west of Dodge City and no women west of Albuquerque.” But that was exactly why Tom Gable believed Fred should try it. He thought the move could have a positive, calming influence, first and foremost on the men working at the eating house and the train depot but also, perhaps, on the customers as well. The women could help alleviate racial tensions, and maybe even make the cowboys a little more gentlemanly.

They would also be a welcome addition to the community, because the West was desperate for women. Recent stories in the Omaha Bee and the Laramie Boomerang had bemoaned “The Scarcity of Women Out West,” citing data from the recently tallied U.S. census. Overall, there were one million more men than women in the United States. While the eastern states had “large excesses of females,” the farther west one traveled, the more the numbers painted a man’s world, and a lonely man’s world at that. Some of the western states had a two-to-one “surplus of males.”

Fred agreed to let Tom Gable try his idea. They sent cables back to Kansas—where Sally, Tom’s mother, Mary, and his wife, Clara, and Dave Benjamin and his wife, Julia, started reaching out to local single women who might agree to be trained by Fred Harvey for a good-paying job.

And that,” Gable later explained, “is how I brought civilization to New Mexico. Those waitresses were the first respectable women the cowboys and miners had ever seen—that is, outside of their own wives and mothers. Those roughnecks learned manners!”

AMONG THE FIRST HARVEY waitresses with the courage to serve in Raton was Minnie O’Neal, a beautiful eighteen-year-old from Leavenworth whose father worked on the railroad. When she first showed interest in the job, her mother forbade it—waitressing, especially out west, was not an occupation for a “good girl.” But then her parents separated, and the family suddenly needed the money. Fred was offering $17.50 ($388) a month, plus tips—decent pay, especially considering that he was also offering to provide room, board, and transportation.

Leaving home for the first time in her life, Minnie took the train from Leavenworth to New Mexico, stopping along the way for meals at Fred Harvey eating houses, where she began to understand what would be expected of her. After three days on the train, she was treated to the roller-coaster ride over the Raton Pass and then the big sky of New Mexico, until the brakes brought the train to a shrieking halt at the Santa Fe depot in Raton. It was a small, two-story red building in the middle of a mountainside frontier town of wood-frame saloons, stores, and houses.

The moment Minnie arrived, Tom Gable laid out the rules he and Fred were developing. She would live with the other waitresses in a dormitory attached to the hotel, and they had hired a female live-in chaperone to keep a watchful eye on them. They had to be in bed by eleven o’clock—except on Friday nights, when the eating house sponsored a town social. That was the only time Minnie was allowed to be seen in the hotel in street clothes. Otherwise, she was required to wear a uniform: a plain black long-sleeved, floor-length woolen dress with a just-short-of-clerical “Elsie” collar, along with black shoes and stockings. To complete the outfit, she would wear a starched white apron from neck to ankle, which had to be changed immediately whenever the slightest spot showed. Her hair was to be kept plain and simple, preferably tied back with a single white ribbon. Makeup was forbidden: The house manager would take a damp cloth and wipe it over each girl’s face to make sure. Minnie had to be dressed this way during her entire waitressing shift—twelve hours a day, at least six days a week—and whenever an off-schedule train arrived in the middle of the night.

She also had to sign a contract that Fred had drawn up, requiring her to remain on the job, and stay single, for at least six months. If she made it that far, she would receive a vacation with free train travel anywhere on the Santa Fe, after which she could be invited to return for another six-month tour of duty.

Minnie ended up working at the Raton eating house for a full year, and during that time became friendly with two of the restaurant’s best customers—Stephen Dorsey, a former Arkansas senator, and his wife, who had relocated to a cattle farm near Raton. Eventually, the Dorseys asked Minnie to leave the Harvey eating house and come work for them in their thirty-five-room stone mansion. This was a bit unusual—Fred’s main problem was losing waitresses who decided to marry Santa Fe trainmen or local ranchers. But Minnie didn’t remain single much longer. She fell for the foreman at the Dorsey ranch, George Washington Gillespie. They married and raised five sons.

FRED WAS IMPRESSED with Tom Gable’s experiment, and quickly moved to adopt it for his entire eating house chain. Feminist scholars would come to see this decision in 1883 as a crucial turning point for American women. There had been only one other significant female workforce in the country—the female mill workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, from the 1820s through the 1840s. But those mill laborers were often exploited, and had never enjoyed anything like the kind of freedom and empowerment that came from leaving home and reinventing themselves in a new place.

To men working and living in western towns, however, Fred’s decision meant only one thing: a steady supply of single, personable, and often comely young ladies being brought in by rail. They gave this unique group of working women a nickname:

Harvey Girls.

It wasn’t long before Harvey Girls became a predominant daydream of men who worked or traveled in the West. They wrote songs and poems about Harvey Girls, told jokes about Harvey Girls, imagined what went on in the Harvey Girl dormitories. It was a new kind of populist male fantasy for the democratized American West.

Tom Gable’s Harvey Girl brainstorm arrived at a perfect time. Just as he was training his first waitresses in Raton, the Santa Fe was asking Fred to expand his operation dramatically. Four new eating houses were being added in Kansas—Arkansas City, Newton, Hutchinson, and Wellington—and a fifth had changed locations. (The Lakin hotel was taken apart, board by board, and rebuilt forty miles farther west in Coolidge.) And five more houses were being built in New Mexico: Albuquerque, Rincon, San Marcial, Vaughn, and Wallace.

Fred needed to hire and train a lot of good people quickly. Up to this point, he had mostly hired local people in each town; now he could shift the entire operation over to waitresses from the East, who would be found through word of mouth or print advertising and interviewed in Leavenworth, Kansas City, or even Chicago. He could train them in his more established eating houses, transfer them wherever they were needed, and house them on-site so his managers could count on them showing up for work. This concept was almost unheard of in the restaurant and hotel business, which was still almost completely local. A hotel might bring in a chef or maître d’ from another city—the way Fred had imported Bill Phillips—or share staff with a seasonal resort. But nobody was running quality restaurants in so many locations, or importing regiments of trained servers.

Fred’s idea, however, was very much in keeping with the way the two most powerful forces in the frontier West—the railroads and the military—trained and managed people. In fact, after a while, his employees began referring to themselves as being “in the Harvey Service” because there were many similarities to the military. When recruited, potential Harvey Girls often felt honored to have been chosen for the training. They were put through a kind of culinary boot camp. Those who couldn’t handle all the pressure and the rules were quickly discharged—if honorably, with train tickets home. Those who flourished under the system lived like an elite feeding force. While many left after their first six-month tour of duty, those who stayed a year had the Harvey Girl equivalent of a medal pinned to their chests: a large silver brooch with a number, which changed each year to indicate how long they had served.

TO MAKE SURE this Harvey Service had a proper headquarters, Fred had Dave Benjamin move from Leavenworth to Kansas City, where he rented a cramped one-room office in the annex building next to the Union Depot (where the city’s main telegraph center and all the major express delivery companies were also located). Dave’s first hire in Kansas City was his younger brother Harry, who had been working part-time for Fred while trying to develop a law practice—advising on legal matters, but also helping with the boss’s correspondence because “Mr. Harvey,” while possessing a brilliant and daring mind for business, had absolutely dreadful handwriting.

Although Dave had started as little more than a bookkeeper, two years later Fred had him running the day-to-day operations for the entire chain—now more than a dozen different locations spread out over eleven hundred miles between Topeka and the western border of New Mexico. The Kansas City office became the communications hub of the company. It was also the central clearinghouse for the large amounts of cash generated by the eating houses. From the very beginning in Topeka, it was not uncommon for each house to generate at least $250 ($5,200) in pure profit each month. Many of them made much more—enough so that in locations that were less profitable, as long as the managers were doing a good job, they were told to maintain standards even if it meant running deficits. There was more than enough money to go around.

Dave blossomed as a right-hand man. He had an intuitive understanding of his boss’s vision and ambitions, and a nonjudgmental appreciation for his weaknesses. Fred was brilliant at hiring, inspiring, and firing people; his instincts and taste were impeccable, his honor beyond reproach. But he could be a little scary, a little over-the-top in his demands. He was once described by an admirer as “one of those keen-eyed, stern and few-worded humans who use a cold exterior to hide a double-size heart.” But not everyone saw the heart. Fred also still relied on his own memory too much. While he expected his employees to keep exacting records, he was still haphazardly scribbling lists in his datebooks.

More important, Fred was obsessed with something he called “maintaining the standard.” It was a phrase he repeated constantly to his staff, a challenge to always strive for excellence. But to some degree, they were still inventing the standard.

Fred had become close to the editor and publisher of the powerful Chicago-based National Hotel Reporter, F. Willis Rice, through whom he was getting friendly with many of the giants in the hospitality industry, including Potter Palmer of Chicago’s Palmer House and George Boldt of the Bellevue-Stratford in Philadelphia (and later New York’s Waldorf-Astoria). Fred learned “their secrets of success,” the trade paper later reported, “and from his gleanings, combined with his creative genius, developed the Fred Harvey system.”

He wanted there to be a “Fred Harvey way” of doing everything. And Dave began creating elaborate systems to put Fred Harvey’s demands and dreams into memo and manual form, making “the standard” easier to understand. He combined what he knew about accounting procedures with what he was learning about how the railroads did business: From his vantage point in Kansas City Union Depot, he could see the way the various roads published intricate rules and procedures—constantly updated—for everything that happened on the train, in the depot, even out on the tracks, and how they circulated copies to all personnel. But while the railroad manuals and memos were often mechanical, robotic, Fred Harvey’s systems—as interpreted and codified by Dave—tried to predict human nature as well, and incorporated issues of professionalism, loyalty, even morality. Although Dave was Jewish and Fred Episcopalian, they found common ground in what their faiths could teach employees (and bosses) about doing the right thing and giving perfect service. As they began distributing memos and manuals, the advice they offered was often quite wholesome and even philosophical, like one list of “Fundamentals” that went to everyone in the expanding Harvey System:


1.     Have a Sincere Interest in People

2.     Like all your Daily Contacts with Guests

3.     Radiate Cheer and Make Guest feel at Ease and at Home

4.     Remember “Travel Follows Good Food Routes”

5.     Keep Well Informed and Updated on the Condition, Origin and Season of different Supplies, and the Serving of Same

6.     Be Human and Be Yourself

7.     Courtesy and a Smile Pay Dividends

8.     Real Service is Without Discrimination

9.     Preserve or CreateNever Destroy

10. Tact is an Asset and HONESTY is still a Virtue

At other times, the advice in the company edicts was more practical, like this sign that hung in the early Harvey employee housing:











The Harvey System had rules for everything. All the eating houses baked and hand sliced their own bread, and every slice had to be three-eighths of an inch thick. Tap water in each of the houses was tested regularly for alkali levels—if these were too high, water had to be brought in on a train car from elsewhere to make the coffee. Orange juice had to be hand squeezed only after it was ordered; if a pitcher of recently squeezed juice was found in the icebox, someone was going to be fired. Once Bill Phillips, now the system-wide chef, had the recipe for a new dish exactly the way Fred liked, it had to be followed exactly, without deviation, for every serving at every restaurant. The menus in the restaurants were also systematized so that passengers wouldn’t be offered the same dishes and specials at every stop.

Yet Fred did not want this centralized system to quash creativity and ambition, so he encouraged the chefs and managers at the eating houses to be innovative as well as entrepreneurial. If they heard about a good deal on local fruit, vegetables, meat, or fowl, they were encouraged to buy not only for their eating house but for all the others. The fresh ingredients would be loaded into the next Santa Fe refrigerator car—in a compartment that only fellow Harvey chefs could open with a special key—and were sent on down the line. Besides keeping the menus lively, this also led to some of the first wide-scale migration of regional American ingredients and preparations, for which the eating houses became known along with more traditional Continental and British fare.

Fred also created exacting systems for serving, the best known of which was the “cup code.” Harvey Girls didn’t write down a customer’s beverage order. Instead, they repositioned the cup at its place setting so that when the “drink girls” descended on the table, they knew exactly what to pour. For coffee, the cup was left in its saucer. For milk, it was flipped and put on the table next to the saucer. For iced tea, the flipped cup was leaned against the saucer. There were also three possible variations for hot tea: The flipped cup was placed on the saucer and, depending on which direction the handle was pointed, the customer wanted black, green, or orange pekoe.

The cup code was just one of many practices designed to wring every excess second out of the thirty minutes the railroad allotted for a meal stop. There were even intricate rules about what Harvey Girls were to do when they had nothing to do. When not actually serving, they had to attend to the large coffee urns that were the most visible symbol of Fred Harvey’s culinary commitment. The urns always had to be perfectly shiny. But, more important, at a time when most eateries in the West brewed coffee once a day and reheated it over and over, Fred Harvey’s urns were very publicly emptied every two hours and then refilled with freshly ground coffee shipped directly from Chase & Sanborn in Boston.

During the rest of their free time, the Harvey Girls were expected to be seen polishing the silverware, every piece of which had Fred Harvey’s name etched on the handle. When asked for the secret of how shiny everything was in his restaurants, Fred said, simply, “We concentrate on it.”

At the beginning of each workday, Fred wanted to know everything that had happened at each of his eating houses the day before. How many eggs and steaks had been eaten, how many pounds of butter and slices of bread, how many of each brand of cigars had been smoked? Also, how did each employee behave, who was having personal problems, who was ready to be promoted, who needed to be transferred or fired? It was a level of interest and detail that most American businesses would not bother to consider for another century, with the help of computers. Dave figured out ways to collect that information for Fred in the mid-1880s, before most places had telephones or electricity, using a complex maze of telegraphed daily reports and letters.

Dave also developed a unique Fred Harvey–only telegraph code so that nobody, including Santa Fe employees, could translate their messages. Fred always carried with him a handwritten codebook to which Dave’s brother Harry would routinely add new entries.

Still, even with all the reports, the only way to fully enforce the increasingly complex Harvey System was to keep making unscheduled inspections. There was now often some kind of warning when Fred was about to arrive on one of his “surprise” visits. His employees developed a little secret code of their own; word would come over the telegraph wire from the eating house Fred had just left: “sack of potatoes due on the next train” or “a tornado is coming.” Tales of his legendary inspections were passed on from Harvey Girl to Harvey Girl, the retellings often as effective as the actual smashing of dishes and yanking of tablecloths.

Managers circulated Fred stories like biblical teachings. The parable of “The Crank” was one of their favorites.

One day an eating house steward was complaining to Fred about a serially dissatisfied customer.

“There’s no pleasing that man,” said the steward, “he’s nothing but an out and out crank!”

“Well, of course he’s a crank,” Fred shot back. “It is our business to please cranks. Anyone can please a gentleman.”

IT IS NO WONDER Fred was obsessed with maintaining standards; he lived in a world with so few of them. There were still no real standards of hygiene or medical care. In America’s largest industry, the railroads, standards were still amazingly diffuse. Companies didn’t share tracks or, in most towns, depots, so they had different ways of doing almost everything. They didn’t all lay their tracks the same way or even the same distance apart. While a standard gauge—the distance between the two rails—was emerging (it was four feet eight and a half inches), many railroads ran on narrower or broader gauge.

And, most amazingly, in 1883 they still hadn’t agreed on a standard of time.

America had always been considered too vast to have standardized time. Each city and town determined time by when the sun rose and set there, so clocks in Philadelphia were set four minutes behind clocks in New York. When the railroads began connecting these cities and needed a way of creating schedules, each used the time at its headquarters as the “standard time” throughout its entire system. Consequently, up through the 1880s, America had fifty “time zones,” each controlled by a different railroad. Train stations had multiple clocks—not showing the time in various parts of the nation or foreign capitals, as they do today, but rather the slight differences in time between nearby cities.

England had recently adopted a national standard time based on the meridian that went through Greenwich. In the United States, however, there was vehement opposition to standardizing time—due to a mixture of civic pride, a desire to maintain a truly local reality, and a resistance to being told what to do by the government. But in 1883, the major railroad companies all agreed to devise a simpler system of timekeeping, utilizing a plan created by the editor of the Travelers’ Official Railway Guide, William F. Allen. He proposed four time zones, based on the time at the 75th meridian, which runs through Philadelphia, the 90th, which runs through St. Louis and New Orleans, the 105th, which runs through Denver, and the 120th, which runs just west of Los Angeles.

On October 11, 1883, at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Chicago, representatives of all the major railroads ratified the plan. Across the country, Sunday, November 18, was deemed “The Day of Two Noons,” when every clock in the country was reset. The fact that this new national standard of time was put into place by the railroads, and not the government, gave a fair indication of who was really running the country.

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