- Author: Alicia Cormie
- Category: History
- Issue: Dec 2011
Riding the rails to the country’s first chain restaurants, prim and intrepid Harvey Girls helped civilize the Southwest and bring
tourism to Arizona.
In 1949, 18-year-old Joan Haydukovich had her eye on a $90 green coat – a coat her mother insisted she buy with her own money. In search of employment, she set off down the dusty roads of Winslow to La Posada Hotel, the gem of an otherwise lackluster town.
“She practically marched me down there and made me take the job,” says Haydukovich, who was hired to work part-time at the hotel’s restaurant. “My mother just knew that it was going to be an important thing in my life to work for Fred Harvey.”
That summer Haydukovich found not only a job but also a role in shaping the history of the American Southwest. She became a Harvey Girl.
In the late 1800s, as the popularity of railway travel grew, Americans set out to settle the untamed West. But trains lacked meal service, forcing travelers to find nourishment at rough-and-tumble roadhouses serving rancid steak and tongue-numbing rotgut. Or they could go to a fancier place and watch their train depart without them while they were midway through dinner.
Fred Harvey, who emigrated from England as a young man, saw the need for quality, inexpensive food and speedy, civilized service. So in 1876 he built the first so-called Harvey House in Kansas, one of the country’s first restaurant and hotel chains. At the time of his death in 1901, Harvey had established 47 restaurants, 30 dining carts and 15 hotels along the Santa Fe Railroad. He is widely credited with civilizing the West by providing community and industry to railroad towns and transforming desert frontiers into tourism sanctuaries.
But prostitution was rampant in frontier towns, and Harvey wouldn’t cotton to the likes of Big Nose Kate serving his customers hooch with a happy ending. He wanted virtuous girls, to reassure respectable travelers.
“There was a saying that there were no ladies left of Kansas and no women left of Albuquerque, but then Fred Harvey brought them west,” says Peggy Nelson, president and tour director of the Winslow Harvey Girls, a volunteer group dedicated to preserving the history of the Southwest.
Harvey advertised for women between the ages of 18 and 30 to work as waitresses, and his standards were high. “They had to have a good reputation, they couldn’t have scandalous behavior and they had to come from a good family,” Haydukovich says.
Thousands of women journeyed west to work under the fatherly arm of the Harvey system. Safe within the walls of the Harvey Houses, they had security and routine, but outside the doors lay the enticing unpredictability of the Wild West.
Earlier Harvey Girls lived in dormitories, where they agreed to strict curfews, could not fraternize with male callers and abided by stringent dress codes. While contractual agreements weakened over time, Harvey Girls were expected to act above reproach and deliver impeccable service.
Adventurous spirits to the last, some pushed against the stifling rules.
Frieda Leonard, a quintessential 1920s Harvey Girl, came from an Illinois farm to work at Harvey Houses in Arizona and New Mexico, according to her granddaughter Patt Leonard, a librarian at the University of Puget Sound. During the day, Frieda donned the uniform – a high-collared white apron over a black dress. A lively personality, Frieda may have felt constrained by the system, as one could speculate from a photo of her playfully posing in lingerie on a Harvey House roof.
“The Harvey Girls helped to tame the West because there was nothing out here except for old cowboys and rough people. Then the Harvey Girls moved out and married these cowboys and made civilized people out of them,” Haydukovich says.
While many Harvey Girls simply viewed their job as a way to make
ends meet, they also gained independence by leaving home. Some broke their contracts and found husbands. Others, like Haydukovich, spruced up their wardrobes.
Haydukovich worked at La Posada for three summers, earning 50 cents an hour plus tips. Dressed in a colorful Southwestern-inspired apron unique to La Posada, she bantered with customers while tending one of two horseshoe-shaped dining counters that seated about 30 people. “It was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” says Haydukovich, who moved back to Winslow after her husband retired from the Air Force. “It really made me into a different person.”
La Posada, the last of the great railroad hotels owned by the Fred Harvey Company, was a masterpiece of Southwestern architecture. Designed by Mary Colter and situated between the Santa Fe Railroad and Route 66, the Spanish-inspired hotel lured celebs such as Shirley Temple, John Wayne and Albert Einstein. Even as rail travel declined, La Posada experienced a mini-revival servicing troop trains during World War II and the Korean War.
“It was very romantic because we all knew that those boys were going to Korea, and it was so sad to feed them and then watch them leave,” Haydukovich says.
America’s love for the car and highway motels intensified, and in 1957, La Posada closed (it reopened in 1997). In 1968, the Harvey Company was sold to Amfac, a Hawaii-based land development company.
Today, the Harvey Girls’ legacy remains ingrained in the towns they helped civilize and groups such as the Winslow Harvey Girls, who will ride the Grand Canyon Railway dressed in the 1890s Harvey Girl uniform in celebration of Arizona’s Centennial on February 14. The group was co-founded by Marie LaMar, the daughter of a Harvey newsstand manager and a Harvey Girl who, after slipping notes back and forth at the Harvey House in Seligman and meeting for walks, eloped. When their secret became known, they were fired and moved to Winslow.
For LaMar, the Harvey legacy was present throughout her childhood in the form of polished silverware and cloth napkins at every meal. For Haydukovich, it survives in a green coat that hangs in her closet more than 60 years later. For Arizona, it’s a class of women who civilized unruly railroad communities, shaping the character of Arizona and the American Southwest.