It was an email from history. Specifically, the history of Santa Fe.
Over the past few years, I’ve received quite a few such emails. Even though I live just a few blocks from the Liberty Bell, I wrote a book, Appetite for America, about Fred Harvey, the Harvey Girls, the Santa Fe railroad and the civilizing of the Wild West. Almost overnight, it turned me into a go-to guy for people obsessed with, or just discovering, this sumptuous slice of American history.
Basically, from the 1880s through the 1940s, Fred Harvey (the company went by the founder’s name) was the dominant food-service entity in America—the country’s first national chain of restaurants, of hotels, of anything, stretching from Cleveland to California. And up through the early 1970s, it remained important in the Southwest, predominantly in Santa Fe, where it had run La Fonda Hotel since 1926; in Albuquerque, where it ran the Alvarado Hotel from 1901 until its demolition in 1970; and at the Grand Canyon, where it had run all the hotels on the South Rim since 1905. The company also ran all the Santa Fe railroad dining cars from Chicago to California until Amtrak took over in 1972, and restaurants in major city union stations.
Its all-female restaurant service staff was legendary—especially after Judy Garland became the most famous of the 100,000 single women who served as “Harvey Girls,” in her 1946 MGM musical of the same name. But the Harvey Girls were just the most appealing part of an empire that lasted for generations, offering access and perspective to a saga of cowboys and Indians and railroads and politicians and how the Southwest was won—a wholly alternative version of our nation’s past through the prism of a completely different set of multicultural founding fathers and mothers.
Even those scholars who bemoan how the company helped create the tourist Southwest and commercialize Native art will grudgingly agree that you can’t understand the Southwest without understanding Fred Harvey, the Harvey Girls and the Santa Fe railroad. There’s a lot about them we still don’t know. But the number of people who care to know is growing.
The Fredisphere is expanding. Just in this area, La Fonda has been undergoing a year-long overhaul of its historic guestrooms, which has required a great deal of “new” research on Fred Harvey design guru and Santa Fe stylist Mary Colter—and a lot of “what would Mary do” moments for board chairman Jenny Kimball and architect Barbara Felix. (Historically and civically careful, the massive makeover ran an extra $1 million to ensure no employees were laid off while more than half the rooms were under construction.)
Across the Plaza, New Mexico History Museum Executive Director Frances Levine just hired a new curator, Meredith Davidson, to dramatically expand the scope of the displays on the museum’s “Fred Harvey Mezzanine” for a reopening next fall. (She’s working primarily with materials recently donated by the Harvey family, including Fred’s own datebooks and letters—the single largest Harvey-related museum gift in years—which are now available to researchers at the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library at the Palace of the Governors.) There’s also a new documentary on the Harvey Girls, much of which was filmed in Santa Fe. And, this fall, a high-end travel group from Texas, the Houston Seminar, will embark on the first official Fred Harvey study tour, “Tamers of the Wild West,” from the Grand Canyon to Santa Fe—nine days, all expenses paid, at $4,600 per person.
Which brings me back to this email from history. A woman from California wrote to say she had just come to understand that her great-grandfather’s brother-in-law was Thomas P Gable, originally from Leavenworth, Kan.—and that he had “invented” the renowned Harvey Girls.
Gable came to Raton in the early 1880s to run Fred Harvey’s trackside “eating house” there. He later made a staffing decision that changed American feminist history. At the time, Fred Harvey (like everyone else in New Mexico) hired African-American men as servers—even though, with post-Civil War racism still high, there were a lot of racial clashes. After one such incident, it was Gable who convinced him to move the men into safer working conditions in the kitchen, and begin importing women from the Midwest to serve. Within a few years, the growing Harvey system was bringing hundreds of single women by train each year to Western towns where the adult female population was almost exclusively wives and prostitutes. Harvey Girls were the first national force of working women in America.
After Gable did that, nobody seemed to know much about him. In fact, despite decades of Fred Harvey and Santa Fe scholarship, nobody even knew what he looked like. But this woman had found a photo of Gable in a family bible—along with one of his wife Claribel, who was the first of many den mothers who oversaw the dormitories where Harvey Girls slept (and tried to protect them from the ravenous local men). Slowly, a story emerged about an unsung guy who played an intriguing role in the life of Santa Fe.
After briefly running the Harvey restaurant in Raton, Gable and his family moved to Santa Fe, where he became deeply involved in territorial politics and business. He was a warden of the first territorial penitentiary, a member of the territorial House of Representatives and, briefly, the acting mayor of Santa Fe. His wife was a founder of the Santa Fe Women’s Board of Trade and Library Association, which established the city’s first library and was involved in the first major beautification project for the Plaza in the 1890s.
Before coming to New Mexico, Gable had worked as a postal clerk and a cigar maker. In Santa Fe, he earned a good part of his living in hotels. In the early 1900s, he managed one of the city’s first major hotels, the Claire Hotel on the southwest corner of the Plaza. It was a 26-room hostelry advertised as the first steam-heated and fireproof hotel in town. (It burned down in the 1940s, part of a grand tradition of “fireproof” New Mexico hotels going up in flames: The Fred Harvey Montezuma hotel outside of Las Vegas burned down twice in three years in the 1880s.)
Gable also dabbled in real estate, saloon-keeping, gambling, even freelance undertaking: In 1892, he landed a government contract to disinter some 600 bodies buried near Fort Union and Fort Cummings and deliver them to the nearest rail stations to be sent home.
Most important, in 1909, Gable became New Mexico’s first-ever official game warden. During the next two years, he became the primary architect of a plan to dramatically improve fishing and hunting in the territory. This included physically schlepping in everything from fingerling trout (the state’s rivers and lakes were, at the time, mostly full of black bass and catfish) to game animals and birds.
He apparently did that job spectacularly well until his beloved wife died in 1911. The next year, after New Mexico became a state, he was forced out of his job due to politics and went back to doing a lot of different things—including, in 1917, announcing he would move to Albuquerque and open the state’s first major soda bottling plant there, as a play against the likely onset of Prohibition. It’s unclear if he actually did that, but in 1919, he was reappointed state game warden, based in Santa Fe, and in 1921 helped build the state’s first fish hatchery at Lisboa Springs, just outside of Pecos.
So, Tom Gable was personally responsible for putting over 2 million trout and bass in New Mexico rivers and lakes.
Which brings me back to the Tres Lagunas fire. My wife and I have been visiting the Southwest pretty much yearly since 1991, when a friend of ours bought a cabin at Tres Lagunas—a former hunting lodge compound nine miles above Pecos in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The private community has its own stocked lakes (three of them, hence the name) and private access to the Pecos River. Before I got this email history lesson, I had no idea that the river had originally been stocked with trout by Harvey Girl-inventor Tom Gable.
At the time I was learning all this, there was still some question about the future of these trout. The Tres Lagunas fire had destroyed some 10,000 acres of Santa Fe National Forest, and there was much discussion on the fishing sites and blogs about how the trout would respond to the flames. (We Pecos fishermen spend way too much of our lives trying to figure out how those trout “think.”)
The fire is now out, but my interest in exploring Fred Harvey-related characters like Gable cannot be extinguished. Each time I meet a new one—like the first-ever Navajo Harvey Girl hired in the 1940s, who approached me after a reading at a local bookstore—I’m reminded of all the unique windows they open onto the past and future of the Southwest.
Fred Harvey and the city of Santa Fe have had a complex relationship for over 130 years. It began badly.
In the late 1870s, the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad completed its goal to replace the entire Santa Fe Trail with rails and change the main transportation from wagons to trains. But for reasons still debated (politics, geography, economics, luck), the main rail line bypassed Santa Fe itself and went instead through Lamy on its way to Albuquerque. Santa Fe itself could be reached only by a branch line from Lamy—which either ruined the city or saved it, depending on your perspective.
Then, in 1901—the year Fred Harvey died and his son Ford officially took over—the railroad built a new depot and a large mission-style hotel, The Alvarado, in Albuquerque. Between the two buildings, Ford arranged for the company to open a private museum, called the “Indian Building,” with a Native art demonstration area out front. It was like a world’s fair exhibit version of Santa Fe, offering train tourists an opportunity to shop like they once could only on the Plaza. It was unbelievably successful.
The Harveys themselves still frequented Santa Fe. In the early 1900s, Ford’s daughter Kitty began her collecting career as a young teen in the Plaza, where she met a 9-year-old Hopi boy named Fred Kabotie and offered not only to buy his paintings with her allowance, but also to send him paper and brushes if he would make her more. But the Harvey business remained based in Albuquerque.
In 1912, according to the New Mexican, Tom Gable was one of a handful of prominent Santa Feans who tried to convince Fred Harvey and the railroad to open a hotel in town. But they said no, having just opened a new Mary Colter hotel in nearby Lamy, El Ortiz. Over the next few years, however, city and local tribal leaders worked more closely with Fred Harvey and the railroad during preparations for the two 1915 World’s Fairs in California—the big, international one in San Francisco, and the smaller, regional fair in San Diego, which included a 10-acre, pueblo village where Native Americans from New Mexico would reside for a year. (Among them was a young Maria Martinez, the famed San Ildefonso potter.)
The timing was perfect: 1915 was the first summer after World War I began in Europe, so international tourists had few alternatives but to visit still-neutral America. Tourists poured into the West for the first time, discovering the Grand Canyon and the recently christened “City Different.”
While the war and the flu epidemic depressed tourism for a few years, it came roaring back with the ’20s. The Harvey company was content to book its little hotel in Lamy and arrange side trips to Santa Fe until 1923, when the De Vargas Hotel (now the Hotel St. Francis) burned down. To meet tourist demand, the company decided to buy a hotel in Santa Fe. La Fonda would become the headquarters for the Southwest Indian Detours, a new bus and car touring business inspired by the success of bus tours at the Grand Canyon.
Fred Harvey design guru Mary Colter immediately began redecorating. The first “detourists” arrived on May 15, 1926, and were escorted around the Southwest in “Harveycars” guided by a new type of Harvey Girl, the Indian Detour Courier. The “detours” were so popular that the railroad agreed to pay for a dramatic expansion of La Fonda, overseen by Colter and local architect John Gaw Meem, for the summer of 1929.
The new La Fonda was the cornerstone of Santa Fe life for the next few decades, drawing artists, Manhattan Project scientists and a steady flow of tourists. Between Colter’s ingenious interiors and the bicontinental fusion cuisine of Chef Konrad Allgaier, the city’s first foodie, it was a favorite of locals and visitors (including German spies who prowled the bar during World War II, hoping to overhear secrets spewed indiscreetly by drunken physicists).
Surprisingly, none of the stories about the rise of La Fonda mention Tom Gable—even though he had invented the popular Harvey Girls and lived nearby. He may have had some kind of falling-out with the Harvey family, since the company usually made a point of recognizing its own living history. But it also could have been that by the time Fred Harvey opened in Santa Fe in 1926, Gable’s interests were elsewhere. In 1923, at the age of 70, he ran for postmaster of Santa Fe, but then withdrew to focus his attention on burgeoning El Paso. There, he was involved in the ownership of the St. Regis Hotel and was also appointed collector of customs—a job that, at the time, was a patronage position for New Mexico, not Texas.
So, on Oct. 15, 1926—three weeks before the grand opening of Route 66 (which at that time ran just a block from La Fonda)—Gable was in Washington meeting with President Calvin Coolidge about El Paso customs issues. And in the summer of 1928, when Santa Fe was crawling with “detourists,” Gable was trying to close a “hole-in-the-wall” resort being used for illegal immigration, proclaiming that if the Mexican government did not act, the US would “likely build a fence…halting persons crossing the boundary there.”
The 1930 census shows the 79-year-old Gable and his 56-year-old daughter, Willi Gable Fisher, living in El Paso; the 1940 census puts them at 334 Washington Street in Santa Fe, just a few blocks from La Fonda. Gable might have enjoyed spending some of his golden years being served lunches by Harvey Girls—particularly La Fonda Harvey Girls, who wore much more colorful outfits than other locations’ standard, nun-ish black dresses with white aprons. But if he did, there is no record of it. (He did give one interview about “how I brought civilization to New Mexico,” to Santa Fe travel writer Erna Fergusson for her 1940 book Our Southwest.)
The Harvey empire—at its peak over 65 restaurants and lunch counters, 60 dining cars, a dozen large hotels, and retail shops in five of the nation’s largest railroad stations—shrank during the Depression, then dramatically expanded again during WWII, when the government asked it to reopen all shuttered locations to feed traveling troops. In a rash of hiring, the company finally started bending some of its original rules. Suddenly, local women could be Harvey Girls (before that, they were always hired and trained centrally, and moved around like troops) and, most significantly, so could women of color.
The war effort only increased the Harvey Girls’ visibility and fame. Gable lived to see them become the subject of a best-selling novel in 1942. But he died in February 1943, only three weeks before his 92nd birthday, and missed out on most of the hubbub about La Fonda’s role as watering hole for the Manhattan Project, and the Southwestern love affair between the Harvey Girls and Robert Oppenheimer’s Los Alamos scientists. He just missed that fateful morning in July 1943, when physicist Glenn Seaborg was slipped a container of plutonium while a Harvey Girl served him breakfast, and the evening in July 1945 when physicists gathered at the hotel to toast the successful atom bomb test. He didn’t see the 1946 premiere of The Harvey Girls movie and its theme song, “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” topping all the charts.
Fred Harvey downsized permanently starting in 1947. It continued as a smaller but still very profitable version of itself, concentrated partly in the Southwest. In the 1960s, Fred Harvey went public and eventually became part of Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which runs Grand Canyon, Painted Desert, Yellowstone and many other parks, offering Fred Harvey-branded service and retail. La Fonda was sold to the Ballen family, which began nursing it back to its former glory. The Alvarado Hotel complex in Albuquerque was not so fortunate—after one of the first major historic preservation fights in the country, it was leveled in the 1970s.
Harvey history became fairly moribund for a while. But in the mid-1990s, thanks to Harvey descendants’ donations, the Heard Museum in Phoenix—which acquired the Harvey company art collection—staged a major traveling show that rekindled interest.
Around the same time, Colter’s masterpiece—the long-shuttered La Posada hotel in Winslow, Ariz.—was purchased by an enterprising couple from Los Angeles, preservationist Allan Affeldt and his wife, painter Tina Mion. In 1997, they moved there and began saving the enormously quirky building, one room at a time. They created a charming trackside hotel and an award-winning restaurant, The Turquoise Room, proving that the Fred Harvey story could be more than the occasional museum show or collectors’ weekend sale event.
The hotel project saved Winslow, and gave other cities with old Santa Fe railway buildings ideas about how to save and use them. In 2000, Dodge City, Kan., saved its Fred Harvey building, El Vaquero, with $11 million in federal funds to entirely recreate Colter’s furnishings and lobby interior, and turn the rest of the building into a modern dinner theater.
Closer to Santa Fe was the $10.5 million restoration of the Montezuma Hotel outside of Las Vegas, to create the United World College campus in 2001, and a grassroots effort to preserve the small-but-mighty Belen Harvey House as a charming museum.
Unfortunately, the effort to save and restore the most at-risk and significant Harvey hotel building in New Mexico—the Castaneda in Las Vegas—continues to sputter. A tentative sale late last fall did not pan out; even though it was rumored that local hero author George RR Martin recently looked into it, a functioning trackside hotel in Las Vegas remains a Fredhead fantasy.
When I started working on my book on Harvey in 2004, there was a big Harvey Girl reunion in San Diego. It was great fun but bittersweet; almost everyone there said they thought it might be the last hurrah for Harvey history.
Yet almost 10 years later, interest in the Harvey saga and the civilizing of the West is soaring. In 2004, it was unclear where the “capital” of Fred Harvey tourism and scholarship would be; sites in Kansas, Missouri and Arizona (where there are archives and Harvey Girl groups) vied for the honor.
Today, Santa Fe has the most momentum: a renovated La Fonda (where the smartly rethought rooms are scheduled to reopen in the fall); the new Harvey collection and mezzanine at the New Mexico History Museum; and major Harvey holdings at the International Folk Art Museum—all supported by the descendants of Stewart and Laura Harvey, longtime Santa Fe residents, along with Harveys from around the country.
Santa Fe is now the logical starting or ending point for a Southwest “Tour D’Fred” and other Harvey tourism. Its vibrant food scene was an inspiration for my most recent Fredhead project, a Harvey Girls Cookbook, built on thousands of old Harvey recipes and dishes on old menus that my researchers have helped me find and post. It’s online-only for now—we share one recipe a day—but we’re hoping a publisher falls under its spell, and would love it if Santa Fe restaurants used it for historical inspiration. (Las Cosas Kitchen Shoppe and Cooking School did a Harvey-themed cooking class in July.)
I could go on, but I just got another Harvey history email from a guy in Medford, Ore., with vivid memories of moving from Clovis to Albuquerque in 1943, when he was in ninth grade, and working among the Harvey Girls at the Alvarado Hotel during the war. He and his brother were busboys, and their single mom worked as a sax player in Verne Swingle’s Dance Band, which played on the Alvarado bandstand six nights a week. He recalled carrying the still-warm linens from the Harvey laundry behind the station and folding them with Harvey Girls, and serving sandwiches and Chicken à la King to trainloads of American soldiers. He remembered the day he was asked to bring food to an old train car parked on a side track with its blinds pulled down.
“We had no idea who was in the car until an Army MP opened the door and let us come in,” he recalled.
“There were about 20 Japanese prisoners of war, shackled to their seats. It was hot inside, and I wondered where they were headed.”
You can see why I can’t get enough of this stuff.
May Fred be with you.
Find him at stephenfried.com