How the West Was Yum

By Nancy Powell

Posted June 3, 2010 in Arts & Culture

Look around the gift shops of the Grand Canyon, and you’re bound to encounter Fred Harvey in one form or another; through his name emblazoned on jars of desert tea, on gift boxes full of mugs bearing his namesake—even on the price tags threading Native Indian dreamcatchers that hang on metal hooks. Harvey’s portrait stands watch over the main lobby at El Tovar, and the rare Harvey House signs that peek out on Route 66 west to the California coast and east into the American heartland still beckon to weary travelers with the promise of comfort and a warm meal.

The real Fred Harvey may be long gone, but Fred Harvey the concept and reputation remain as alive as ever.

As pioneers blazed their trails west, so too did Fred Harvey on the backbone of the Santa Fe Railroad. Harvey tamed the stomachs and temperaments of the frontiersmen in their westward quest of dominance.

“He was the Ray Kroc before McDonald’s, J. Willard Marriott before Marriott Hotels, Howard Johnson before Hojo’s, Joe Horn and Frank Hardart before Horn & Hardart’s, Howard Schultz before Starbucks,” writes Stephen Fried of Harvey in the prologue of Appetite for America. “Fred Harvey was also Walt Disney before Disneyland.”

Fried’s delightful and well-researched biography serves simultaneously as delicious travelogue, civil commentary railroad history and on  on hospitality and the art of fine dining on the road. The Fred Harvey legacy springs to life in Technicolor theatricality. Fried provides insight into the man whose business acumen continues to be the envy of business leaders today. While Harvey may have lived and breathed the American dream, his biographer has shown equal tenacity and insight in bringing this family, their burgeoning roadside empire and their place in American history to life.

The further Fried delves into the Harveys, the more one realizes their importance in developing and influencing many of our present-day institutions. The Harvey girls introduced females into a workforce dominated by men. By employing Mary Jane Colter as the architect for many of the eating houses, Fred and his son, Ford Harvey, revived and brought Native American art, culture and history to the forefront of American consciousness. Out of Colter’s work (a “cross-cultural tableau of fantasy rooms”) was born Santa Fe style. Without Fred Harvey, there would be no American tourism to the scale that the Grand Canyon became with the launching of El Tovar and Hopi House. Even mallrats have reason to appreciate the Harveys; Kansas City’s Union Station became the nation’s first true shopping center or indoor mall at its opening in 1914.

The hospitality industry was Fred Harvey’s birthright, and the birthright of all subsequent generations that may have followed. Ford Harvey, Fred’s eldest son, kept the dream alive, as did Ford’s son, young Freddy Harvey. But alas, all good things must come to an end. Internal strife and family tragedy brought the flourishing empire crashing to its knees.

Fried’s devotion to Harvey and the Harvey family saga is infectious and illuminating, inviting readers to be willing participants on a journey through the American Southwest. As a testament to the Harveys’ importance, cities today are busy restoring old Harvey Houses. In California, Fred Harvey’s legacy lives on at the Santa Fe station house in San Bernardino, Casa del Desierto in Barstow and Los Angeles’ Union Station, one of the last places to receive a Harvey Restaurant. The shuttered El Garces in Needles will soon become an Amtrak stop and Route 66 museum.

Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire that Civilized the Wild West by Stephen Fried, Bantam Books, Hardback, 544 pgs. List Price $27.


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