In travels over the years with my father, on my own, and now with Wendy, I have repeatedly encountered remnants of the Fred Harvey company. It was a chain of restaurants, hotels, and other hospitality businesses alongside the Santa Fe railroad in the western U.S., renowned for the quality of its food and service and for how its Harvey Girls helped to “civilize the American Southwest.”
There are still traces of Fred Harvey at Union Station in Kansas City, and one can still stay at a handful of former Fred Harvey hotels: La Fonda at Santa Fe, New Mexico, La Posada at Winslow, Arizona, and El Tovar and Bright Angel at the Grand Canyon.
I’ve been reading a splendid history of Fred Harvey and his namesake company: Appetite for America by Stephen Fried. A story from late in the company’s history, amidst the Great Depression, sticks out which I want to share with you. By then, the actual Fred Harvey had been dead for decades, but the company remained in the family, who just called it “Fred Harvey” and company policy was to speak as if Fred were still around, running the place:
As the Depression deepened, the Harvey Houses took on a new role in economically ravaged America — they became known as the softest touches in the West, the places where impoverished locals and drifters went in search of a free meal. It was company policy never to let anyone who couldn’t afford to pay leave hungry. Many begged for food at the back door and were pleasantly surprised to get sandwiches, fruit, bread, and coffee. Others came in through the front door.
Bob O’Sullivan, who later became a well-known travel writer, never forgot the hot, dusty fall afternoon in Albuquerque when he was a second grader and his family had to rely on the kindness of strangers in Harvey Girl uniforms. His mother was driving him and his eleven-year-old sister — with all of their belonging stacked high against the backseat windows — to California, where they hoped to meet their father and make a new start. The O’Sullivans had arrived in Albuquerque expecting that $25 — several weeks’ pay — had been wired to them at the Railway Express office. But when his mother walked out of the office in tears, Bob knew the money hadn’t arrived. As she pulled on her driving gloves, the children asked if they could still get something to eat.
“Of course we can,” she said finally. “We have to, don’t we?”
She drove along the railroad tracks to the Alvarado and led her children into the dining room. There were few customers there, but lots of delicious aromas, and every surface was gleaming.
When a smiling Harvey Girl approached them, her puffed sleeves and starched apron rustling, Bob’s mother pulled her aside and whispered something. The waitress walked into the kitchen and returned with a man wearing a suit, to whom his mother also whispered. Then they were led to a table, where Mrs. O’Sullivan began to order sandwiches for the kids and just a cup of coffee for herself — until the man in the suit interrupted her.
“Why don’t you let me order for you?” he said, and proceeded to tell the Harvey Girl to bring hot soup, then the beef stew, mashed potatoes, bread and butter, and coffee for the lady. He asked the children if they wanted milk or hot chocolate.
“Yes, sir,” they both said.
“Milk and hot chocolate for the children,” he continued, “and some of the cobbler all around. Does that sound all right?”
“Will that be all?” the waitress asked.
“Oh,” the man said, “and these people are the guests of Mr. Fred Harvey.”
Bob saw his mother mouth the words “Thank you.”
The taste of that stew would stay with him his entire life. As would the memory of what happened when they finished eating. His mother pushed what few coins she had left toward the waitress, who pushed them back with a smile.
“Oh, no, ma’am. You’re Mr. Harvey’s guests,” she said, placing two bags in front of them. “And the manager said I was to wrap up what you didn’t eat, so you could take it along.”
“But we cleaned out plates,” young Bob blurted out. His sister sighed and looked at him as if he were the dumbest person in the world. Then the Harvey Girl startled giggling, followed by his mother and then the kids.
In the car, Mrs. O’Sullivan opened the bags, and found them filled with more food than they had eaten for dinner.
“What’s in them? Bob asked.
“Loaves and fishes,” she replied, shaking her head in amazement. “Loaves and fishes.”
When he shared this story in 1989 in a column in the Los Angeles Times, Bob O’Sullivan added:
That evening, [my mother] swapped some of our personal possessions for a tank of gas and a room in an auto court. There was no money at Railway Express the next morning, either, but for some reason things didn’t seem so bleak or so frantic.
As we were passing the Harvey House on the way out of town, my mother pulled to the side of the road for a moment. “Some day,” she said, “when you two grow up I want you to go to a Harvey House and order the most expensive thing on the menu and then I want you to leave a big tip.”
In spite of the fact that Fred Harvey’s long gone now and the last Harvey girl is probably married and celebrating her grandchildren or great-grandchildren…I think I’ll check and see if there are any still around.
And if I find one, I’ll stop in, order from the top of the menu and maybe finish with a little cobbler and a cup of coffee. Then I’ll lift my cup: “Here’s to you, Mr. Harvey.”