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Harvey Girls of Gainesville Texas

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 Fred Harvey "kept the West in food and wives". - Will Rogers 1931

Harvey Girls worked for the first U.S. restaurant and hotel chain, and they added a special touch of comfort given to railroad passengers and workers. Beginning in 1881 and through to 1968, over 100,000 women packed up, left momma, and moved to railroad towns for an opportunity never before available to women in the 19th century. (1)

Harvey Girls met high-quality standards in personal character traits and work ethics. Gentlemen took their wives, female relatives, and children to dine without unpleasant incident at Harvey House. A Harvey Girl was aged 18 to 30. She had at least an eighth-grade education, good morals, and good manners. After all, a Harvey Girl epitomized good looks, efficiency, high moral standards, and community service (esp. during WWII). * (2)

Harvey Girls literally opened the door to the American west and said: “Come on in, stranger”. Often, the Harvey Girls made the first human connection to someone’s new home or once-in-a-lifetime journey. The Harvey Girl persona embodied the nineteenth-century genre of American pop culture.

A Harvey Girl did not live in poverty as a single gal! She was able to support herself like the only other occupations of female employment that the American frontier towns offered, but without the dancehall stigma.** Fred offered his Harvey Girls $17.50 a month plus room, board, and tips. 

The Harvey House Empire

Fred Harvey had the brains of an opportunist with experience in high-quality restaurant service from New York. He opened a restaurant with a partner in St. Louis. The Civil War broke out the next day. His partner joined the Confederacy. No one wanted to eat out. Some accounts say Fred went to work on riverboats, as a traveling railroad freight agent, or sorting mail for the railroad in St. Louis. Whatever it was that Fred did for work at that time, he noticed that weary traveler could not find good food in a clean place or a nice bed enroute.

In 1875, Fred met up with Charles Morse, the head of the then infant Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad (AT&SF). Fred opened two restaurants on its subsidiary line. The Harvey House franchise (as we would call it today) served and comforted fatigued railroad and later automobile travelers for 87 years. (4) Fred Harvey, the brains behind the Harvey Girl, hired only the best managers, cooks, and wait staff available.

Fred did not immediately start out with Harvey “Girls”. The hospitality industry used male employees in the mid-19th century. In 1875, passenger trains stopped approximately every 100 miles. There may have been a place to eat or not. Passengers had less than an hour to find a place to eat, order their food, and get back on the train. (6)

This nature of that beast opened the travelers up to highway robbery. If there was a meal to be had, it was of poor quality, expensive, and probably unsanitary. Coolers and refrigerators did not exist. Fast food did not exist. If passengers did not make it back to the train, it rolled off leaving them stranded. In 1875, Fred opened his first Harvey House Restaurant in the Topeka, Kansas, Santa Fe Depot. (3)

1881-1883: The Harvey Girl is Launched

As customary in the restaurant culture of his time, Fred started out with black waiters. The waiters suffered from habitual racism. Sometimes the waiters drank more liquor than they served and argued with the customers. (5)  Fred hired his friend, Tom Gable, to run the Raton House in New Mexico, and Gable came up with the rare idea to hire women. Stephen Fried wrote in his biography of Fred Harvey’s life and businesses, “The girls were hired primarily because of racism and high testosterone levels in the new Harvey restaurants in New Mexico.” 

Fred served meals on imported linens with silver service and fine china. He personalized the table service with the Fred Harvey name. Management required all male guests to wear a coat. Without pretension, Fred supplied dinner guests with dark alpaca coats if they showed up without a coat. 

If you don't behave like gentlemen, you can't stay here and you can't come again. Now put up your guns and take a drink with Fred Harvey!Fred Harvey 

The Harvey Girls became famous and served western travelers for almost a century. They wore an iconic uniform. In the beginning, it was black shirtwaist dresses, starched white aprons, and black bows in their hair. Fred placed an ad in East Coast newspapers: Women, 18 to 30 years of age, attractive, educated, and decent. No experience necessary, room and board, free train fare, and $17.50 a month. (9)

Young women boarded trains and moved west like a tsunami wave. Fred trained his “girls” like English butlers. At first, he could not keep the girls employed because they married so quickly after arriving. So, Fred offered the girls contracts with a “do not marry for x amount of months” clause that came with steep penalties. They lost half their pay and travel privileges if they married inside the contract dates. Yes, Harvey Girls had traveling privileges. 

The room and board came with a dormitory, a strict house matron who in some cases was the head waitress, and a mandatory 10:00 p.m. curfew (unless a train rolled in). Harvey House management fired girls who broke curfew three times and sent them home. However, when possible, Fred supplied the dorm with a courting parlor. Management conducted a 30-day training session without pay which proved a grueling and strict experience. The ladies graduated from training with self-assurance and poise. The most difficult process when serving travelers and workers on a train schedule was timing.

The restaurant knew exactly what time the train arrived. The first course was on the table waiting for the customers as they walked in. While one waitress took drink orders, another one came right after pouring the drinks. While the girls cleared away the first course, a male manager brought out large trays of generous, hot entrees. The customers had time for seconds and deserts, plus they made it back on the train within 30 minutes. And, Fred cut his pies into fourths, not sixths or eighths! 

Eventually, the Harvey House operated a restaurant every 100 miles along the AT&SF Railroad. It is said that the AT&SF grew up with the Harvey House.

So dear I love him that with him, All deaths I could endure. Without him, live no life! - Shakespeare

The Harvey Girls inspired the dreams of lonely men throughout the west. Men sent the Harvey Company thousands of letters, and some included songs and poems. In 1911, Dr. Palmer of Cerrillos, New Mexico, wrote this love poem about the Harvey Girls:

She’s here and there,
Just everywhere,
She’s ready with
A welcome rare.
With silken curls
And teeth like pearls
The dainty dimpled Harvey Girls…
I’m speeding o’er
The Santa Fe
From sunset to
The break of day.
As night unfurls
The tourist curls
In sleep and dreams
Of Harvey Girls. (7)

As the girls married, some did break their contracts. Judy Garland starred in the 1946 classic film, The Harvey Girls. One of her songs on its soundtrack was, "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe". (8)

Gainsville, Texas Harvey Girls

Gainesville has one of the six remaining Harvey House buildings in Texas. By the end of the 19th century, Fred began opening smaller lunch counters in train depots. It looks like Harvey House lunch counters came to Texas as early as 1887 beginning in Galveston. Fred’s larger restaurants appear in documentation in Texas around 1900. The Morton Museum in Gainesville remembers its Harvey Girls, their dorm, and their style! The Friends of the Morton ladies put on Harvey House events. The last one was for the 2016 Christmas season. (9)

My neighbor’s great aunt, Delsie Lillard, was a fan of the Harvey Girls because she worked at the Turner Hotel next to the Santa Fe Depot in Gainesville (today’s Turner Apartments). Delsie contributed greatly to the Harvey Girl documentation at the Morton Museum which displays her picture.

The Gainesville, Texas, Harvey House opened in 1901 and closed in 1931. (10) Gainesville Harvey Girls lived inside the Santa Fe Depot. Almost every section of this depot had separate exterior doors. The pantry in the restaurant also housed the staircase entry that led to the manager’s two-room apartment and the girl’s seven-room dorm. That staircase came out next to an exterior door. You can still see the outline of the horseshoe-shaped lunch counter in the depot. (11)

All Good Things Must Come to an End – Geoffrey Chaucer

Fred Harvey died in 1901 with 45 restaurants and 20 dining cars in 12 states in operation. His sons and grandsons carried on for 67 more years. But, the railroad towns shrunk as travelers took to air travel and we built the interstate system. Amfac Inc., based in Hawaii, bought the Fred Harvey Company in 1968. JMB Realty bought Amfac in 1988 and became Amfac/JMB. There was another takeover and a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2002. (13)





* Did the Harvey Girl policy serve as a model for the first wave of airline stewardesses?

**In the latter part of the 19th century, a distinguishing factor developed between frontier town dancehall girls and ladies of the night. Dance hall girls eventually held the stature of a lady who worked in an entertainment field and took home a paycheck and tips. They did not associate with their counterparts and looked down on them. I don’t know this, but I bet they even went to church. The majority wanted a home and a husband and eventually found that.














The Fred Harvey CompanyTimeline:


1. Harvey Girl at Work - Anonymous
2. Fred Harvey Waitress Manual Cover
3. Harvey Girls Somerville TX 1910
4. Gainesville Santa Fe Depot
5. Gainesville Harvey House Lunch Counter-Then and Now
6. Gainesville Stairway to Dorm Rooms
7. Gainesville Dorm Room for Harvey Girls
8. Harvey Girl uniform: Bright Angel Lodge Grand Canyon
9. “Harvey Girl” Reenactment 2016
10. Harvey Girls - Anonymous



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