By Rosa Walston Latimer.
When the railroad forged its way through the West, it brought Fred Harvey restaurants and hotels with it. Certainly Mr. Harvey had a unique vision and was an astute businessman, as were his sons and grandsons who continued the business after his death in 1901. However, it was the employees, led by waitresses known as Harvey Girls, who made the Fred Harvey company a success. Through the years, over 100,000 women followed the Santa Fe Tracks westward to work as Harvey Girls.
How was life as a Harvey Girl beyond the ever-present smile and distinctive black and white uniform? Certainly it was an exciting adventure for some and a guarantee of a husband for many. The Harvey House staff was in many ways a protective family, still it could be difficult as most of the young women left home for the first time to work in a Harvey House. No doubt at the end of a twelve-hour shift, bone tired and alone on the second floor of a Harvey House, many of these young women cried themselves to sleep. As a result of research for a series of books on Harvey Houses and Harvey Girls I have heard many personal stories expressing loneliness and a feeling of constant fatigue; however, invariably there were happy endings.
Even though Harvey Houses were festooned with Christmas decorations and the menu was brimming with traditional holiday food this time of year was especially difficult for young women who were working far from their home and family. In many ways, their experience was no different from what we feel today when faced with similar situations.
Ethel Willis Irby was born just over one hundred miles northwest of Las Vegas, New Mexico in the tiny mining town of Brilliant. After graduating from high school in 1928, she went to work as a Harvey Girl at the Castaneda in Las Vegas.
Her first Christmas in Las Vegas Ethel was very homesick as she had always been with her family during the holidays. As we might say today, she decided to apply some “retail therapy” to her situation. Ethel went shopping and bought some new shoes. Although the purchase took almost all of her weekly wages, she felt special in the slender, black pumps and decided to have the shop owner wrap up her scuffed, tan ankle boots declaring she wanted to wear the new shoes. Stepping a little lighter in her shiny pumps Ethel continued to saunter along Bridge Street enjoying the holiday decorations in the shop windows. Then it began to rain and water quickly puddled on the uneven dirt footpath. This is when Ethel discovered her pretty new shoes were not leather, but were instead made of cardboard with a glossy surface. Before she could make her way in the pouring rain the few blocks to the Rawlins building where she and other Harvey Girls lived, her new Christmas shoes had almost disintegrated.
Ethel’s cold, wet feet were a perfect match for her dampened spirits. She felt she had wasted her money on a frivolous purchase and the whistle of an approaching train reminded that if she didn’t hurry, she would be late for work. Thankful that she had recently chosen a fashionable bob Ethel used her bath towel to dry her hair as best she could, slipped into her black and white uniform, put on dry shoes and reported for work in the bustling, crowded Castaneda dining room. She was still lonely and disappointed but it was time for her shift and she had train passengers to feed!
Through the years the lives of Harvey Girls have been romanticized making it easy to forget the difficulties the young women surely faced. However, for the most part, they shared a strong desire to meet the Fred Harvey standards and faced each day with renewed determination.
Three years later Ethel Willis transferred to Los Chavez Harvey House and Hotel in Vaughn, New Mexico. While working in the lunch room she often served meals to a Boston wool buyer, Sumner Irby who traveled regularly to the southwest for business. Ethel was twenty years old and Sumner thirty-five when they met and she considered him a kind, gentle “old” man. According to Ethel’s daughter, it took Sumner two years, but he eventually convinced the pretty Harvey Girl to marry him and provided Ethel with a happy, comfortable life with as many pairs of leather shoes as she desired!
Rosa Walston Latimer is the award-winning author of a series of books about the establishment
of Harvey Houses along the Santa Fe Railroad: Harvey Houses of Texas, Harvey Houses of New
Mexico and Harvey Houses of Kansas, which received a “Kansas Notable Book Award” in 2016.