Fred Harvey and New Mexico


On a spring night in 1882, some drunken cowboys riding through northern New Mexico could have been forgiven for squinting in disbelief at the sight of the Montezuma Hotel. It did appear to be a hallucination.

The Montezuma was one of the most astonishing architectural creations in America — although perhaps most astonishing was its location. It was nestled in a gorgeous middle of nowhere, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains six miles outside of Las Vegas, New Mexico, an old Santa Fe Trail town that the railroad had only recently connected to civilization.


The largest wood-frame building in the United States — some ninety thousand square feet, with 270 guest rooms — the Queen Anne-style Montezuma featured a dining room that seated five hundred, a casino, a breathtaking wine cellar, eleven bowling alleys, a billiard hall, and an immense therapeutic bathing facility offering six different kinds of baths and douches, so patrons could fully experience the medicinal powers of the underground hot springs.

The service at the Montezuma was brilliant, with staff imported from the best hotels in New York, London, Chicago, and St. Louis. And the cuisine was amazingly ambitious. The food combined the expertise of classically trained chefs from the restaurant capitals of the world with fresh regional American ingredients — fruit, vegetables, and shellfish, as well as delicacies like green turtles and sea celery harvested by pearl- diving Yaqui tribesmen — to which few other kitchens in the country had access, and which most chefs wouldn’t come to fully appreciate for almost another century. Open for only a few weeks, the resort was already attracting dukes and princesses and presidents, who quickly booked passage on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, the upstart railroad whose newly laid tracks were the only way to get there.

In front of the Montezuma was a large park, exquisitely landscaped with shade trees and rare flowers, planted in three train- car loads of imported sod and topsoil. At the center was a huge fountain, flanked by lawns for tennis and croquet, an archery range, and even a zoo, where the deer and the antelope literally played. The free-form park was illuminated, as was the building itself, by thousands of gaslights fed by the hotel’s own generating station.

So when “Red John” and his men approached on horseback that evening, they couldn’t believe their bloodshot eyes.

[amazon_link asins=’B0036S4A7M’ template=’ProductAd’ store=’mtvoice07-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’3125be15-6995-11e7-8aba-af2039dbf89b’]The cowboys rode first to the park, where they hollered and shot their guns in the air while galloping across the manicured bluegrass and graveled walks. The commotion could be heard throughout the hotel, from its grand entranceway to its cavernous main dining room. There it reached a tall, slim man in his mid- forties, with a perfectly groomed Van Dyke beard, deep, cautious eyes, and senses that were always cocked. He tried to ignore the noise and enjoy his dinner, but soon threw down his linen napkin and rose abruptly from his cane backed chair.

The man was dressed fastidiously in a dark blue suit with a waistcoat and dangling watch fob, the formal uniform of a Victorian gentleman from his homeland of England. But he walked quickly, with the nervous energy of America, drawing the attention of the dining room staff and some of the guests as he passed.

By the time he left the dining room, the cowboys had dismounted and were running riot through the hotel. He could hear them in the billiard hall, where they were taking target practice with the Indian relics and curios displayed above the bar, and shooting the tops off the private- label liquor bottles on the sideboard.

“Boys, put up your guns!” the Englishman called out, striding into the room.

“Who the hell are you?” Red John yelled.

Although he had been in America for thirty years, Fred still retained his British accent, which made some Westerners laugh.
“My name is Fred Harvey,” he replied. “I run this place. And I will not have any rowdies here. If you don’t behave like gentlemen, you can’t stay here and you can’t come again. Now put up your guns and take a drink with Fred Harvey!”

But as the cowboys laughed, cursed, and taunted him, and hotel guests started gathering, he walked over and grabbed Red John by the collar. In a single motion, the fastidious Englishman yanked the dusty desperado over the bar and pinned him to the floor.

“You mustn’t swear in this place,” he told the stunned cowboy. There was a moment of silence — and then Red John told his men to stand down.

“Fred Harvey is a gentleman, boys,” he declared, brushing himself off. “I say, let’s have those drinks.”
When the drinks were done, they were served a midnight breakfast as well — the breakfast for which Fred Harvey was becoming famous. The freshest eggs and steak available in the country shipped directly from farms in refrigerated train cars. Pan-size wheat cakes stacked six high. Quartered wedges of hot apple pie. And cup after cup of the best damn coffee these cowboys had ever tasted in their lives.

Red John and his men never made trouble at the Montezuma again.

But they still wanted to know, as did more and more people across the country: Who the hell is Fred Harvey?

Fred Harvey was an 1800s culinary innovator who believed he could serve the finest cuisine in the middle of nowhere, according to Stephen Fried, who wrote about the restaurateur in Appetite for America.

Before Harvey, food available for train travelers was subpar at best, and Harvey had suffered “culinary indignities” along the rail lines himself.

“The food was awful,” Fried tells NPR’s Melissa Block. “And what they would often do is they would serve it to you so late that by the time you sat down, it was time to get back on the train.”

He adds, “They would actually scrape the food off the plate and serve it to the next person who came in and got tricked the same way.”

But Harvey changed that.

“The idea here was that these restaurants should be as good as the best restaurants in New York, in Chicago, in London, and that’s where the chefs came from and that was the level of ambition,” Fried says.

Inspiration From Experience

In Harvey’s heyday, you could ride in grand style on the Santa Fe railroad, get off at, say, Dodge City, Kan., and step into the depot for a fine meal at a Fred Harvey restaurant.

By its peak in 1928, the Fred Harvey empire ran nearly 100 restaurants and 25 hotels from Chicago to Los Angeles, not to mention newsstands and bookshops in more than 80 cities. He set an impeccable standard for service and quality: the Fred Harvey Way.

A Stickler For Service

There were three choices at Fred Harvey restaurants: a sit-down dining room where even cowboys needed to wear jackets to eat; a lunchroom that would have been similar to today’s diners; and a place for takeout coffees and sandwiches.

[su_box title=”Some Of Fred Harvey’s Recipes” style=”glass” box_color=”#0810bc”]How To Make Coffee

It is a violation of our instructions to use less than eight ounces of ground coffee per gallon. Coffee should be ground medium fine, but not so fine as to contain a flour dust.

Your water must be boiling hot, and the water urn should show evidence of the boiling by the steam popping off through the top. When you can see the steam coming out under pressure from the top of the water urn, that is a sign that the water is right for making coffee.

If you make four gallons of coffee, pour four gallons of water over rapidly, keeping the urn covered between each pouring so as to retain all the heat. Let this four gallons of water percolate over and through the coffee thoroughly and when the entire four gallons of water have run through, then start to pour over again. If everything is right, at the end of the second pouring the coffee should be finished and be up to the standard. If you do not allow all the first pouring to run through before you start the second, you are very apt to spoil the coffee because when drawing off the second pouring, the stream comes out thin and gets cooled between the faucet and the vessel, with the result that the quality of coffee is immediately adversely affected.


Remove skin, dismember bull frog, cut into desired pieces, season with salt and pepper, dip in flour and saute in butter and one crushed garlic kernel, a few minced shallots, one chopped onion and three sliced fresh mushrooms.

Add a few fresh tomatoes, peeled and diced. Let simmer until frog legs are tender, season with salt and pepper and finish sauce with chopped parsley and olives.

Serve in chafing dish.[/su_box]

To make people understand the importance of doing things perfectly in the early years of his restaurants, Harvey would run to the front of the train, hop off and walk to the restaurant before the passengers arrived.

“If he found the slightest thing wrong, he would basically take the tablecloth, yank it, and throw the entire table on the floor so that the people would have to pick everything up, clean everything up, and reset the table before people came into the restaurant,” Fried says.

After a time, Harvey didn’t have to pull the tablecloths.

Even so, the workers in the restaurants had a system to warn others that he was coming. “Sack of potatoes on next train” was one of the many telegraph message codes to let people know at the next station that Harvey was on the train.

The Harvey Girls

One innovation that Harvey put into effect was the Harvey Girls. They were women who rode the trains to go work at a Harvey restaurant out West. In the 1946 movie, The Harvey Girls, it was said that the women were “conquering the West with a beef steak and a cup of coffee.”

So popular were the Harvey Girls, MGM produced a feature film losely based on them!

Harvey believed that the Harvey Girls were civilizing the West. The Harvey girls began in the 1880s in part because the company was expanding into rough New Mexico.

“In New Mexico, all waiters at that time were African-American men, and there was an incredible amount of racism,” Fried says. Stories in the newspapers said these men would have to carry guns to protect themselves from their customers.

Harvey decided that his company would hire only single women from the Midwest, train them in Kansas and ship them out to the different restaurant locations. They would sign a contract that they wouldn’t get married for six months and they would live together in barracks.

The Harvey Girls were a signature component of Harvey’s success and one of his most enduring legacies. Placing ads in Midwestern and Eastern publications, he solicited women between the ages of 18 and 30 to travel west and work as waitresses in his restaurants. Other qualifications included being unmarried and “of good character.” The “girls” signed yearlong contracts and lived next to or in the Harvey Houses, under the close supervision of a Harvey Girl with the longest tenure. If they left before the year was up—the most common reason for doing so was marriage—they forfeited a portion of their base pay.

Not only did these waitresses provide pleasant, efficient service, but in the early years of Harvey’s enterprise, at least, they were often the only single young women for miles around. That in itself would have been a draw, even if the food hadn’t been up to snuff.

The prototypical early uniform consisted of a long black dress (no more than 8 inches above the floor) overlaid with a starched white apron, black opaque stockings and black shoes.

“This is the first real female workforce in America,” Fried says. “The first opportunity for single women to travel, to make their own money. And the company continued this practice through the late 1930s.”

Fried says that it’s estimated 100,000 women were Harvey girls.


But Harvey not only created America’s first restaurant chain, he was a pioneer of cultural tourism. In the early 1900s, the Fred Harvey Company created an “Indian Department,” which commissioned artists and photographers to convey the exoticism of Indians in the Southwest. The images were printed on everything from menus to brochures to promote the mystique of Indian Country, and, not incidentally, Harvey’s tourist enterprises.

The company also employed Native Americans to demonstrate rug weaving, pottery, jewelry making and other crafts at his Southwest hotels. The sales of those items in Harvey’s stores influenced the design of native arts.

Taking the marketing approach even further, in 1926, the Harvey Company began offering “Indian Detours,” chauffeured interpretive tours in which guests at his Southwest hotels were ferried in comfortable Harvey Cars for one- to three-day excursions into Indian settlements in New Mexico and Arizona.

What’s Left?

Little of Harvey’s empire is left, but some of his hotels are still around in the Southwest.

And some communities in the West are reclaiming their own Fred Harvey buildings so that they can be used as restaurants, hotels or municipal buildings.

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