By Rosa Walston Latimer.
The story of the hiring process of the Fred Harvey company is well known. Harvey’s advertising in women’s magazines and newspapers for “educated women of good character to go West to work” enticed young women to the Kansas City office for a personal interview. If they met Harvey standards the women boarded a train headed for a Harvey House to proudly wear the respectable black and white uniforms of the Harvey Girls.
In the early years of hiring Harvey Girls, one woman in the Kansas City office, Alice Steele, conducted all of the interviews and made the determination of who was worthy to represent Fred Harvey in far-flung locations as the Santa Fe Railroad expanded passenger service towards California. However, as the railroad towns became more populated and Harvey Houses became well known as offering favorable jobs for young women, the local Harvey House manager began to handle most of the interview and hiring process. Even though most local women came to an interview with a personal recommendation or perhaps a letter from her minister, occasionally a not so “educated woman of good character” ended up on the local Harvey House payroll.
While doing research for a series of books about the history of Harvey Houses most of my interviews with former Harvey Girls included stories about how employees were like family and often went to great lengths to help each other in times of trouble. There were also a few scattered stories of a petty thief among the Harvey Girls who shared close living quarters or a waitress who misrepresented the truth to gain a promotion or transfer to a more favorable location. After all, in over 80 years of employing approximately 100,000 Harvey Girls there was certainly going to be some who didn’t live up to the wholesome reputation.
Well-documented stories reveal examples of two Harvey Girls who took serious missteps to a wilder side of life: Madam Millie and Cecil Creswell.
Most likely, the most notorious Harvey Girl worked in Deming, New Mexico. Mildred Fantetti Clark Cusey was born in 1906 in Kentucky and was orphaned at the age of twelve when her parents died during a flu epidemic. When her older sister, Florence, contracted tuberculosis, Mildred moved with her to Deming where her sister was admitted to the Holy Cross Sanatorium at Camp Cody. Mildred was hired as a Harvey Girl through the recommendation of a friend with whom she attended church.
One version of what happened after Mildred became a Harvey Girl is that she was transferred to Needles, California, and because of the extremely hot climate, she quit and returned to New Mexico but not to the Harvey House. Instead, Mildred went to work at a brothel in Silver City, New Mexico. In the 1930s, while still in her twenties, Mildred had acquired three “houses of pleasure” in Silver City, one in Deming, one in Lordsburg, New Mexico and one in Laramie, Wyoming. Eventually her “business establishments” stretched from New Mexico to Alaska.
Another account of Mildred Cusey’s story claims she couldn’t make enough money as a Harvey Girl to meet the demands of caring for her sister and was forced to make a different career choice. Regardless of the “why” of Mildred’s story, she later became known as Madam Millie and proved to be a very successful business woman. In addition to many brothels, she also owned a ranch, restaurants and various homes. Mildred was very active in business and local charities and was once described by a Deming resident as “the most sincere and giving person I ever met.”
Mildred died in 1993 at the age of eighty-seven. Her biography, “Madam Millie: Bordellos from Silver City to Ketchikanit” was published by the University of New Mexico Press in 2002. While further researching this unusual Harvey Girl story, I discovered that Madam Millie’s last husband of twenty years, James Wendell Cusey, was a naval veteran of World War II, and Millie is buried next to him in Fort Bayard National Cemetery near Silver City, New Mexico. While not entirely living up to the wholesome image of a Harvey Girl, Madam Millie was a survivor and certainly made her own place in history.
In a few weeks, I’ll share another unusual Harvey Girl story of Juanita Van Zoast who later became known as Cecil Criswell, cattle rustler.
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, a 2016 Kansas Notable Book Award. Rosa’s next book, Harvey Houses of Arizona, will release in the Spring, 2019.