Taming the West One Meal at a Time

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Nothing changed America as much as the iron horse. People were finally able to travel across country in relative comfort and not have to worry about the weather, Indians, or some of the other mishaps that plagued early travelers. A train passenger’s greatest fear was food poisoning. That’s how bad meals were along the rails.

It took one efrednterprising Englishman to change the way travelers ate. His name was Fred Harvey and his Harvey House restaurants eventually stretched along the Santa Fe railroad tracks from Chicago all the way to Los Angeles and San Francisco—one every hundred miles.

Hear That Whistle Blow

Fred Harvey invented the “fast-food” concept long before Ray Kroc. Passengers were allowed only thirty minutes to get off the train, eat and board again, so time was of the essence. He devised a system in which train conductors would telegraph passenger food orders to the restaurant in advance. This allowed the restaurant staff to prepare the food before the train pulled into the station.

From Dishwasher to Household Name

Harvey learned the business the hard way. After traveling to America at the age of seventeen, he landed a job as a dishwasher at a famed New York restaurant, working his way through the ranks from dishwasher to line-cook. He eventually landed in St. Louis where he took over the Merchants Dining Room Saloon. His success lasted only a short time. The winds of war could not be ignored and after his partner joined the secessionist army, taking all the money the two men had saved, Harvey’s restaurant was doomed.

After a series of jobs and personal losses, he eventually took over an eating house at the Santa Fe depot in Topeka. He arranged for fresh fruit and meat to be railed in from Chicago and other states. His food was so good that railroad officials worried that no one would want to travel past Topeka.

First Female Workforce

As the number of his depot restaurants increased, so did his troubles. Black men were hired as waiters, but this often created conflict with cowboys. After one unpleasant midnight brawl at the Raton Harvey eating house, Harvey’s friend Tom Gables suggested a radical idea; why not replace black male waiters with women? Harvey decided to give Tom’s idea a try.

Harvey ran ads in newspapers for “young women of good character, attractive and intelligent, 18 to 30, to work in the Harvey Eating Houses.” He offered a salary of $17.50 a month, a tidy sum for a young woman. Soon he had all the help he needed.

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This Harvey House is in Barstow, CA. It’s now a museum. I used it as a model for my story.

The women lived in dormitories above the restaurants under the watchful eye of a house mother. Their uniforms consisted of a black dress, black shoes and stockings, and a crisp white apron. The women had to adhere to strict rules and were not allowed to marry for six months.

His new female staff was a great success and helped ease racial tensions. Even the roughest of cowboys and railroad workers were willing to don the required (and dreaded) dinner jacket just for the pleasure of being served a good steak by a pretty girl.

He Kept the West in Food—and Wives

That quote from Will Rogers says it all; Among his other talents, Fred Harvey not only “civilized the west” he was indirectly responsible for more than 5000 marriages. That’s enough to make you want to forgive him for inventing fast-food. Almost….  

What’s the best or worse meal you had while traveling?

                   

 

Calico SpySomeone is killing off the Harvey Girls. Undercover Pinkerton detective Katie Madison hopes to find the killer before the killer finds her—or before she burns down the restaurant trying.

 

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Margaret Brownley
Margaret has published more than 40 books and is a N.Y. Times Bestselling author and past Romance Writers of America Rita Finalist. She writes historical novels set--where else?--in the Old West! A Match Made in Texas is available for pre-order now. Margaret's stories also appear in the 12 Brides of Christmas, Pioneer Christmas and Second Chance at Star Inn collections. Not bad for someone who flunked 8th grade English. Just don't ask her to diagram a sentence.
Updated: January 28, 2016 — 1:36 pm

12 Comments

  1. What an interesting article! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Kimberly, thank you. Have a great weekend!

  2. very interesting,,my worse meal traveling was in Hawaii,,it was a meal with a show type deal,,they gave me the meat and rice and some other stuff,,i ask my husband what is that pink stuff? he said its the blood from the meat on the rice,,that done it,,yuck! went to McDonalds afterward money wasted,,i do not eat pink meat or meat that is bloody enought to change the color of white rice to pink pudding,,gag

    1. Vickie, I’m with you. No pink or red for me, either. Thanks for sharing.

  3. My father had a favorite restaurant chain for whenever we traveled when I was a child. He didn’t even balk after he had three incidents of food poisoning. My mother ended up buying a guide to restaurants for when we traveled and insisted on trying a “locally popular” one as we traveled for “educational purposes”. No more food poisoning.

    As an aside–Margaret Browning you are the one who started me reading Western novel of substance. I thank you for that!.

    1. Hi Whitney, yuck! Three incidents of food poisoning would cure me of eating out forever. Talk about a cast iron stomach.

      So glad you’re one of our readers. Thank you for stopping by.

  4. Sorry, my attention was taken and I misspelled your name. Everything I said was true! My apologies Margaret BROWNLEY!!!!!

    1. No problem. It’s a pretty simple name and I’m always amazed at how many ways it can be misspelled.

      Whenever people ask me to spell my last name I say brown-the-color l..e..y.
      So guess what? I actually received mail addressed to
      Margaret Brownthecolorley. LOL

  5. Best place i have eaten is a little place in salina kansas makes the best hamburgers in the midwest. Always a line to get the burgers. Worse is mcdonalds they food just sucks.

    1. Hi Kim,
      I don’t know what it is about Kansas, but I’ve had some of the best hamburgers there. It must be the meat.

  6. Worst meal while traveling was at a Denny’s many years ago. The 5 of us all had something different and there was something wrong with everything. I can’t remember what everyone had, but I had what was supposed to be a vegetable stir fry. It was a bunch of chopped up vegetables thrown on a plate with some sort of cold sauce poured over it. Nothing was stir fried or cooked.

    1. Patricia, yuck! Just reading about it turned my stomach. Thank you for sharing, (I think). 🙂

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