History Weekend – Tales of a 19th Century Road Warrior, Continued

(Part one is here.)
All righty – everyone still interested? This is the rest of the story, of Fred Harvey and his hospitality empire, which not only is given popular credit for ‘civilizing’ the Wild West, but also for supplying that stretch of the Southwest between the Mississippi-Missouri and the Sacramento with excellent food and drink, splendid service, and a constant stream of wives – for many of the women recruited as waitresses in the track-side station restaurants married right and left; to railroad men, co-workers in the Harvey establishments, and to customers they met in the course of their duties. A comparison between Harvey Girls and stewardesses in the glamorous days of commercial flight has been made now and again; both groups were composed of relatively young, independent and adventurous women, carefully selected and trained, and working in a setting where their attractive qualities were shown at an advantage.

But the restaurants and lunchrooms, as appealing and as well-organized as they were – were only part of the Harvey brand. In many locations along the AT&SF, the trackside restaurants and lunchrooms metamorphosed naturally into hotel to succor the weary traveler. Making the journey substantially more comfortable, and bringing high standards of cookery, service and organization to the trans-Mississippi west was just the first step. Fred Harvey thought big and to the benefit of the ST&SF in attracting a bigger share of the footloose public – by making the West a destination for the pleasure traveler in the last decade of the 19th century and the first two of the next. Come and explore the scenic and fascinating west – now that such an exploration could be done in perfect safety and luxury. Essentially, almost a hundred years before Disneyland and Disney World, Fred Harvey created the destination resort. One of the first was a grand and luxurious edifice in Las Vegas, New Mexico, built to take advantage of scenic mountain landscapes and a cluster of hot springs nearby: the Montezuma Castle. It was the first building in New Mexico to have electric lighting. Guests were pampered with the usual Fred Harvey level of expert service and excellent food, served with a lavish and incredibly valuable silver service. Other in-house amenities featured bowling alleys and billiard tables. The grounds around the hotel were beautifully landscaped and adorned with fountains. Guests of the Montezuma included presidents, kings, war heroes and the merely prominent. The building itself burnt twice – and was rebuilt. (A number of Fred Harvey establishments fell to fire – the Harvey House in Barstow, California burned at least three times. Wood construction and injudicious use of cook-fires in a dry desert area will create that kind of hazard.)

Fred Harvey’s health declined precipitously in the late 1890s – he would die of complications of intestinal cancer in 1901– but he had trained up his sons Ford and Byron in every aspect of the business, and they carried on without any discernible change in focus or standards. The Fred Harvey name was a brand, and a solid one. The company renovated and expanded their existing locations and added new ones. One of their distinctive features was a careful attention to local architectural styles, as well as artistic traditions. The Harvey hotels were a great popularizer of what we now know as ‘Southwest style’ – lots of adobe, rounded arches and arcades, local stone and rough-hewn wood, folk-art tile and pottery, ‘vigas’ ceilings of poles and exposed rafters, Navaho rugs and blankets. The in-house architect and designer was Mary Jane Colter, who was first offered a job to decorate the interior of the Alvarado hotel in Albuquerque in 1901. Over the next thirty years she worked full-out in designing hotels, lodges and concession buildings, including the complex at the El Tovar (for which she had done the interior decorating) and the Bright Angel lodge, located at the very rim of the Grand Canyon. La Posada, in Winslow, Arizona, is considered one of Colter’s finest. She designed everything for that establishment, from the building itself, down through the furniture, fittings and china, the gardens and the staff uniforms.

At least as well-known, and with the good fortune to be in the heart of a town with a centuries-long history, is La Fonda (which means ‘the inn), in Santa Fe. The present spectacular building was put up by the Fred Harvey company in 1922, but the site – at the terminus of the old Santa Fe Trail – had been the location of an inn since the earliest days of Santa Fe, three centuries previous. It is still popular, not least for the number of specialty shops selling local art, pottery and jewelry … for that was another aspect of Fred Harvey’s refinement of the Wild West experience; encouraging the purchase of southwest Indian art and artifacts to tourists – and yes, even to hiring craftsmen and women from the various tribes to demonstrate their arts. A number of the Harvey hotels, starting with the Alvarado in Albuquerque, included a kind of private museum, and a craft demonstration and sales area, where visitors could purchase reproductions. Yes, Fred Harvey (the company) may also have invented the museum shop.

And the company likely inspired the Southwest fashion style for women, with another female-driven inspiration based in the new La Fonda. This was called Southwest Indian Detours – one –two- or three-day bus and automobile tours of significant Indian pueblos and ruins, artist’s studios and spectacular scenic vistas – conducted by young women called ‘couriers’ – or tour guides. They dressed in outfits designed after traditional Navaho women’s dress: full dark cloth skirt over boots, a jewel-colored velveteen blouse ornamented with a concho belt and a silver squash-blossom necklace. The heyday of the Detours was relatively brief, owing to the Depression.

The company had one last fling during WWII, when La Fonda was the chosen hang-out for scientists working on the atom bomb, and the Harvey Girls worked overtime feeding troop-trains passing through. On any number of occasions, there was no time for the soldiers to de-train and eat, the Girls just passed sandwiches in through the windows. The Judy Garland movie, The Harvey Girls brought the awareness of all things Harvey to anyone who just might have escaped knowing about them … but the sixty-year run was already nearly over. Increasingly, people preferred traveling by automobile, or by airplane. The houses that Fred built, all along the tracks of the AT&SF were repurposed, or torn down. Some serve as museums, or city offices, or stand derelict and crumbling. A handful, like La Fonda, El Tovar and El Posada are still hotels, although not operated by Fred Harvey.

(This is a perfectly splendid book about Fred Harvey, his businesses and his family. I recommend it highly. It also has a number of the most popular recipes served in the Harvey Houses.)

6 thoughts on “History Weekend – Tales of a 19th Century Road Warrior, Continued”

  1. Come and explore the scenic and fascinating west – now that such an exploration could be done in perfect safety and luxury. Essentially, almost a hundred years before Disneyland and Disney World, Fred Harvey created the destination resort.

    I saw an episode of Antiques Roadshow a few years back. Someone brought in a large western landscape painting. It was done in the Hudson River style; elk wandering a meadow with majestic mountains in the background, the sun pouring through clouds giving the scene a golden dreamlike hue. That type. Albert Bierstadt is rightly famous for painting a series of them.

    It’s interesting where he got it. He was helping a friend clean out a garage and three of these, all the same size, were in the back. The owner gave him his choice. The Antiques Roadshow appraiser said they were genuine, were commissioned by the railroads in the 19th century, and hung in railroad terminals as a sort of travel poster. ‘Come see the wild and beautiful West! It’s only a train ticket away’. The other two, he assumed, were part of the series. He appraised it at over a hundred grand. Not bad for a days work.

  2. And that was about the same time also that the traveling Wild West shows began to be enormously popular. I transcribed some letters from about 1880, from a collage-aged boy and his tutor on an excursion to the west – to San Francisco and back. On the return journey, I think they stayed over in Denver, to enjoy hunting, and the mountain scenery.

    I ran across an interesting academic paper when looking up information on the couriers – the author was all sniffy-faced about how the Indians were treated, as the sort-of-exotic-other, by the Harvey organization – like animals in a zoo. The thing is – they were all paid, and paid pretty well for the art, the pots and baskets and blankets. It seems that the various Southwest tribal artists were perfectly OK with putting on a show, because … it was a profitable living. Some other things I have read is that producing it all for the tourist trade kept those traditional arts alive and pretty lively, too. YMMV.

  3. It’s interesting that many people do not realize that the Navajo were taught blanket weaving by the missions. It was not a folk art form before the whites came. There is an old mission on the Navajo reservation in west New Mexico that has an enormous collection of blankets woven by people on the reservation. I have one on the wall above my desk that I paid $3500 for ten years ago or so. The big ones were 35 to 50 thousand. It came with a photo of the weaver.

    Las Vegas NM was on the Santa Fe line when I took the train to California but there was only a 5 minute stop. In the days when train travel was slower, I expect people broke the trip up by stopping a few days.

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