For the better part of a century, pioneer restaurateur Fred Harvey and his expanding empire of eating houses mirrored the path of the Santa Fe Railroad, opening the West one restaurant or hotel at a time. Staffed by young women in starched, high-collared outfits and bearing the Harvey seal of good coffee and gourmet food, the Harvey houses made the railroad glamorous. Today, Harvey's legacy remains at Santa Fe's La Fonda and a host of other former Harvey houses. As promised, here's SFR's Q&A with Harvey biographer Stephen Fried (and, disclaimer, my former professor), who talks about the writing process, the Harvey family, and how the West was won.
SFR: Why'd you decide to write about Fred Harvey?
SF: My wife and I went to the Grand Canyon in 1993 and sort of met Fred Harvey in the lobby of El Tovar, the main hotel on the south rim. His portrait is in the lobby, and when you go up to your room they give you a little pamphlet about Fred Harvey. It just sounded like an amazing American saga that no one had done much more than write a pamphlet about. Then, six years ago, I decided to try to write it as a book.
Did you ever have a moment of crisis—Fred Harvey's not that interesting; the book won't happen, etc.?
There was no shortage of material to write about...but there were lots of times I worried the book wasn't going to happen. Writing a big history book is a hard thing.
What's the hardest part?
To make it not read like a history book. My goal was to write a history book that I would read, and I'm not really that brilliant a reader of history books.
If everything's historic and the main character is long dead, how do you make it interesting?
You tend to write from anything you can use. I'm a nonfiction writer married to a fiction writer who catches every little thing I may have been too creative with. It's a very rigorous process: You write from pictures, from descriptions other people make, from descriptions in newspapers.
[The Harveys were] a private family, but quite well known. There's actually a lot of small descriptions of [them], and you pick the things are most evocative and use them to their best advantage. You don't have to have a ton of it; you just have to use it smartly. Honestly, sometimes you're piecing it together from very small shards of observations somebody made.
Was Fred Harvey the first American "brand"?
They invented branding by necessity. Fred couldn't be in all places at one time; he was trying to manage restuarants that were very far away from each other before telephones, so he had to create this notion that Fred Harvey could be anywhere at any time.
For decades after his death, people swore they had met Fred Harvey: ‘I met Fred Harvey'; 'I saw Fred Harvey'; 'I got a letter from Fred Harvey.' They still signed all the letters 'Fred Harvey,' with a stamper of his signature. It was good business.
The Harvey business spanned almost 70 years, from the late 1800s to mid-1900s, and there were many times along the way when Fred's and the company's success seemed less than assured. Were the challenges an element of their success?
One of the things that's most admirable about the Fred Harvey Company is that during the Depression, they continued to feed people—sometimes for free, the people coming along Route 66 from the Dust Bowl, because it was the right thing to do. They were a company built on the idea that you do the right thing even if it means you're going to lose money sometimes.
But it's hard. I'm sure the Harveys sometimes wished they were rich the way their rich friends were, like they had an oil gusher or some property that sold for a lot of money. The Harveys had a business that was extremely profitable, but they had to work hard in it every single day. That's the nature of service businesses: You never get to just rest on your laurels. That's what they were committed to for 60, 70 years.
Over those 70 years, there were plenty of recessions, depressions and even a flu epidemic. Did you notice the parallels to today?
All the time. Honestly, [I] found working on the Fred Harvey story during all these economic setbacks and flu epidemics to be very comforting. We know so little about our history, and I'm as guilty as anybody. When you go back and see that the cycles we're living through are cycles America has lived through lots of times and survived, it's comforting. It just reminded me that America is an incredibly resilient place.
In honor of Fred Harvey, you're doing your book tour by train. How is it?
There's nothing like seeing the country on the train. I wish the food was better—Fred Harvey is definitely missed.
What legacy does the railroad have in Santa Fe? (The Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad ultimately did not go through Santa Fe.)
Santa Fe, in many ways, is the first city in America to go through what many cities have now gone through: the erosion of the original reason for their business communities. In the East, that's manufacturing; in Santa Fe, that's trade.
Santa Fe is the first city that had to reinvent itself as a tourist attraction, which now everybody's trying to do. Santa Fe was the first, and it had to wrestle with the love-hate relationship people have with tourists because its original role as a business capital was taken away [when the railroad skipped over it].
But the Harveys chose to build a hotel [La Fonda] here anyway.
The truth was that the Harvey family themselves always enjoyed Santa Fe more than Albuquerque. But it wasn't until the 1920s that they took that passion and love for Santa Fe and finally got into business in Santa Fe. They created Indian Detours, which changed Santa Fe forever.
And contributed to the city's Southwestern style...
A lot of interior design ideas that we now think of as Santa Fe style were really proliferated by the Fred Harvey company and by their great designer, Mary Colter. Ironically, she did all the designing from her office in Kansas City. The "authentic" Southwestern design was being done by a woman from Minnesota from her office in Kansas City.
You share the Harveys' passion for Santa Fe, don't you?
Look, you could argue that the biggest reason I did this book was because my wife and I adore coming to the Santa Fe area. You could argue that this whole six-year project was just so I could fish. We took every opportunity to come to Santa Fe, and we'd go up in the cabin [in Pecos]—I'd write up there, I'd fish up there, and then we'd come down into Santa Fe [and] eat all the good food.
But when you come to Santa Fe and look for things about Fred Harvey, you just trip over them. So many people in northern New Mexico came [here] because their mothers or grandmothers were Harvey girls or worked for the railroads.