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WESTSIDE / VALLEY : He Took Rough Edge Off Old West : Fred Harvey Co., which brought fine food, hotels and 'the Harvey Girls' to railway towns, is saluted in a Santa Monica Heritage Museum exhibit.

August 01, 1993|NANCY KAPITANOFF | Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for The Times.

The lore of the Old West often credits the likes of Wyatt Earp for bringing propriety to lawless towns. Others attribute that arduous feat to Fred Harvey.

Harvey's taming of the West did not involve a gunfight at high noon. The English-born businessman brought fine food and comfortable, attractive hotels to the towns along the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad, not to mention the Harvey Girls, the renowned waitresses. Beginning in 1876, Harvey Houses sprang up from Illinois to California, challenging the dominance of rowdy saloons, and changing the nature of life along the railway.

To salute the Fred Harvey Co.'s contributions to the development of the West, the Santa Monica Heritage Museum is presenting the show, "Fred Harvey--Civilizer of the West along the Santa Fe Railway."

The downstairs rooms of the museum, a house built in 1894, have been turned into typical rooms found in Harvey establishments. The living room is a hotel lobby decorated with stuffed animal heads, Navajo rugs and Southwest paintings. The dining room offers Harvey Co. china and silverware service for 12.

Upstairs, an "Indian Curio Room" resembles those that opened in Harvey Houses and hotels beginning in 1903. It presents examples of the fine Indian rugs, blankets, baskets, beaded work and jewelry that the Harvey Co. introduced to the traveling public. A Harvey House-style newsstand nearby calls attention to the fact that the Harvey Co. was the first to bring the cigar newsstand to the West.

In a small "screening room," viewers can watch a video copy of the 1945 MGM musical, "The Harvey Girls," starring Judy Garland. On display are photographs from the film and an exquisite costume worn in the movie by Angela Lansbury, who plays the classic Western "bad girl."

Among other photographs in the exhibit are pictures of the wonderfully designed hotels, dining rooms and lunch rooms that once stood in Needles and Barstow; Winslow, Ariz., and Albuquerque, N.M.

"I wanted people to be able to visualize the various characters of these hotels and rooms and furniture and things," said museum director Tobi Smith, who curated the show with Marty Newman. "Fred Harvey's influence along the railway system was extraordinary. He really did bring about a whole social and cultural change within a town that the company came to."

By 1870, 20 years after Fred Harvey immigrated to the United States, he was living in Leavenworth, Kan., and working as a general agent for the Burlington lines. He also owned a ranch, had invested in a hotel, and was an advertising salesman for a local newspaper. Spending much of his time traveling by train, he continually encountered vile food and miserable service at train stops.

Fred Harvey decided to open eating houses that provided not only fine food but excellent service. Patrons would not have to sacrifice their meal or miss the train. Restaurants were built from one train stop to the next, with each stop offering a different menu.

"We have a lot of menus in this exhibition, not just to show how inexpensive they are, but to show that prior to fast food and microwaves and television, people enjoyed dining," Smith said. "Even though you were out in the desert, you still had salads, fresh fish, oysters, pheasant, all of those kinds of things on the menus, because the train system not only brought in the food, it brought in the ice, the means of keeping things fresh."

The excellent service came from young women of the East and Midwest who had been recruited by the company to become "Harvey Girls." No experience was necessary, because he preferred to train them in his own exacting style of service.

"These were the women who would eventually be marrying and settling down and bringing in the churches and the schools and basically civilizing that particular town," Smith said. Will Rogers wrote in 1931 that Fred Harvey "kept the West in food and wives."

During the decade before his death in 1901, Harvey opened several station hotels designed in Indian motifs to interest tourists in the various Southwest Indian cultures. Harvey's two sons continued to develop the company's interest in Indian culture after his death, forming an Indian Department within the company in 1902.

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"Prior to Fred Harvey and the Indian curio rooms, no one really was introduced to Indian culture," Smith said. "His company was the one that really put those items on display, encouraged not schlock kind of stuff for the tourists, but high-quality silver and turquoise jewelry and weavings. And his company didn't take advantage of Indians. They paid a fair price for good-quality work."

The company also arranged inexpensive "Indian Detours" from the train to pueblos and such unusual sites as the Painted Desert. "Three days of 300 miles of sunshine and mountain air in the land of unique human contrasts and natural grandeur," one brochure beckons to westward-bound travelers.

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