Sunday, January 11, 2015

Setting the Standard: The Fred Harvey Company and Its Legacy

Fred Harvey is a legend in these parts and much has been written about him and  Hollywood spread his fame through the classic Judy Garland movie, “The Harvey Girls”.

Written in 1946 for the film, the song, “The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” was released already in 1945 by Capitol records sung by Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers.

I certainly remember the music from my childhood as it was still popular in the 1950’s.  It all had little meaning to me, other than being a catchy tune, until we started to come out west where the stories of Fred Harvey and the Fred Harvey Company were no longer a thing of myth but of reality.  But the stories also helped feed the mystique of a state known as “The Land of Enchantment,” New Mexico.

As we walked down a flight of stairs at the New Mexico History Museum I noticed that on the staircase as you come into the gallery below it says, The Harvey Mezzanine. With this exhibition that opened late last year a gap has been filled in the history of the state.  While there were references before there is now a succinct little exhibition that tells the Harvey story.  The press release says it will be on until December 31, 2030.  When I commented to Kate Nelson, Marketing Manager and de facto Communications Director for the museum, she explained this was just another way of saying it will be on permanent view for the foreseeable future.

Fred Harvey was an Englishman who began his life in America as a dishwasher in New York but he saw the railroad pushing west and had the vision that the passengers would need to be fed along the way.  Fred Harvey made a deal with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and the rest is history.  At its height the Fred Harvey Company covered 15 states with over 60 locations.

We became fully aware of the name Fred Harvey by knowing a couple of hotels, known as Harvey Houses, that were built by his company.  The one we have stayed at a few times is La Posada in Winslow, Arizona in the middle of Indian Country and like all Harvey hotels and eateries it is located next to the railway tracks.  Not only does the passenger train still let people off right at the hotel but freight trains run well into the night. So, if you go be sure to get a room on the other side of the hotel.

The focus of the History Museum exhibition, however, is New Mexico.  Santa Fe used to be on a spur from the main East-West rail line that ran through Albuquerque. To encourage stopovers the Harvey Company bought and enlarged the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, that, recently refurbished, still welcomes visitors. This was the starting point for the “Indian Detours” the Harvey Company organized and promoted beginning in 1926.  These were guided automobile tours into the heartland of Indian Country designed to help the Easterners better understand the different world they were now in.

Here is an image of a bowl by Susan Folwell, a contemporary Santa Clara ceramicist, depicting an Indian Detour to a pueblo on the Hopi mesas.

New Mexico is also where the concept for the Harvey Girls was hatched by Tom Gable in Raton, New Mexico in 1883.  The idea caught on with the Company, that young well bred women in black and white uniforms would make the passengers feel a little more comfortable coming to the wild and wooly west.

Tom Gable, saw the concept a little differently.  He said, “Those waitresses were the first respectable women the cowboys and miners had ever seen--- That is, outside of their own wives and Mothers.” 

The Harvey Company had an entire concept, which continued from a place to eat while traveling to hotels where you could stay a night or two.   Clients would also eat off of proper china designed for the company with proper silverware.

Mary Jane Coulter, a former art teacher and painter, was hired to design most of the Harvey buildings to reflect local traditions and the romance of the west, including the Indian Building at the Alvarado Hotel and the rooms at La Fonda.

The Albuquerque train station had along side of it the Alvarado Hotel, which, in turn, housed the “Indian Building” where people were introduced to the art of the Native Americans from the pueblos.  The chief buyer of Indian art for the Harvey company, Herman Schweitzer, immigrated from Germany in 1885.   He began his curio trade when he came to be in charge of the Coolidge, New Mexico Eating House on the Santa Fe Railroad.   Fred Harvey’s daughter encouraged Schweitzer to collect and he built a huge collection for the Indian Building.  Although much of it was for sale, some was kept for the Company’s collection.  Some of these pieces were eventually sold to the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery (today known as the Nelson-Atkins Museum) in Kansas City, which, if I may slip in a plug, was coincidentally was the museum where Ted Coe founder of the Ralph T. Coe Foundation was curator and director.

If you are interested in New Mexico’s history don’t wait until 2030 to see this informative exhibition.  The curator of the museum’s 19th and 20th Southwest collections, Meredith Davidson, has enlightened us about an important period spanning close to one hundred years of New Mexico’s history as the Harvey family legacy continued until the death of the founder’s grandson and was sold in 1968.

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