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Home / Articles / Arts / Art Features /  Girl Power
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Girl Power

Inside the myth that was the Harvey Girls

October 30, 2013, 12:00 am

Santa Fe history buffs can tell you that the American Southwest, like a cactus-encrusted Rome, wasn’t built in a day. In fact, it took some time and concentrated effort for its image to go from “The Wild West” to the kind of place you’d want to visit with your parents. 

Did we get rid of all the poisonous creatures? Vacuum up the sand and put in carpeting? Offer spectacular catering at the hands of charming, attractive women? Yes on that last one. 

The opening of Fred Harvey’s Harvey House chain of railside restaurants inspired travel to the Southwest and gave it a civilized touch. Harvey is credited not just with having the first US restaurant chain, but also inventing cultural tourism along the way. At its peak, the Harvey hospitality empire had 65 restaurants and lunch counters, 60 dining cars, a dozen hotels and retail shops in five major railroad stations. His iconic servers, the “Harvey Girls” were extremely popular, inspiring a 1942 novel that became the basis of and eponymous MGM musical starring Judy Garland. 

Gloria Jimenez, who worked for Harvey at La Fonda in the 1950s, describes the atmosphere as exacting, but friendly. “You really had to know what you were doing. At first I thought, ‘Oh my God, what did I get myself into?’ But it was really nice, I enjoyed the people, the employees,” she tells SFR. “The managers always spoke to us, and I didn’t see [Harvey] very often, but he would always come and say hello. He made you feel right at home.”

She recalls mastering the trademark Harvey Girls uniform, which included an oversized, satin hair bow. “it wouldn’t stay in my hair…my hair was too fine. [Manager] Monty Chavez was always after me to put it on, and eventually I said, ‘It won’t stay in my hair, do you want to wear it in yours?’” she says with a laugh. 

Hilda Salas, 93, worked in Albuquerque’s Alvarado Hotel from 1937 to 1945. She entered the franchise thanks to her mother, who was a chambermaid at the hotel. Among her strongest recollections are being the first Latina working in the dining room and the locale’s lavish sterling silver serving dishes. 

“All the girls were from different towns, some were farm girls and [Harvey] gave them a room to stay in—it was like staying at home,” she says. 

Another perk for Salas was serving troops during WWII. 

“I enjoyed that because I got to see all these young, handsome men and they got to see a Latina girl, many had never seen one before,” she says in a tongue-in-cheek way. “They were amazed at my brown hair and my brown eyes, my speaking two languages. So I liked that!”

On Nov. 17, the New Mexico History Museum joins forces with KNME-TV and La Fonda on the Plaza to celebrate the Girls’ legacy. “An Evening with the Harvey Girls” also doubles as a fundraising event benefiting the museum’s exhibitions and public programs. The shindig begins with the premiere of producer Katrina Parks’ new documentary, The Harvey Girls: Opportunity Bound, which tells the story of the young women who decided to travel west and work as waitresses in Harvey Houses along the railway. 

“One of the things Parks’ documentary’s highlights is that Fred Harvey was one of the first women’s liberators,” says Meredith Davidson, curator at the New Mexico History Museum. “There were not many opportunities for jobs pre-World War II and these jobs as couriers and waitresses, these were interesting jobs in interesting places, away from home—these women got their first taste of self-empowerment.”  

The Harvey Houses also played a key role in nurturing and developing regional design and aesthetic. Architect Mary Colter was on the Harvey Co. payroll for 20 years, during which she oversaw and completed 21 projects including La Fonda. A century later, Colter’s influence on the visual world of the Southwest is still felt.  

In their renovations of hotels, Davidson notes, “many of the [existing] design features are what we now call Santa Fe Style.” 

Following that same trailblazing vein, the Harvey chain encouraged the sale of local arts and crafts along rail stops and showed demonstrations of traditional, Native handiwork.

The City Different’s place as a world-class culinary hot spot also has ties to the Harvey Company, as they employed noteworthy figures like chef Konrad Allgaier, whose fusion dishes combined influences from the Southwest and his native Germany, and who has been referred to as “Santa Fe’s first foodie hero.”

A reception at La Fonda, one of few original Harvey Hotels still in operation, follows the screening. That location in particular was the hotel impresario’s pride and joy. 

“The moment when the romance [between the Harveys and Santa Fe] starts is when they buy La Fonda,” Davidson says.

The iconic inn became part of the Harvey chain in 1923, and would soon be headquarters for the massively popular “Indian Detours” three years later, which brought tourists (or “detourists”) to experience Native pueblos and ruins. 

Think that what the smiling girls in those black and white photos stood for is passé? Think again. The importance of Harvey’s legacy can’t be understated. Renown newspaper editor William Allen White predicted this impact when he said: “the more one sees of the world…the more he respects Fred Harvey. He is the Great American Caterer.”

Salas, now a grandmother of 17 and great-grandmother of 8 puts it succinctly: “Fred Harvey was the one who started serving food in the trains, and later on the airlines. Up to now they still do that.”

Her stint as a Harvey Girl is one laced with pride, she says, thanks to the boss himself. 

“Mr. Harvey never wanted his girls to be called waitresses. We weren’t waitresses; we were Harvey Girls.”

 

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