SPRINGFIELD, Mo- The year is 1876 a young man by the name of Fred Harvey has struck a deal with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad to open a restaurant at one of the railroad’s depots.
Within a few years, the restaurant was a hit so he opened more along the railway that led West. Who did he hire to work at his restaurants? That’s where the Harvey Girls come in.
The Harvey Girls were young women hired by Fred to work at his 47 restaurants, 30 dining cars, and 15 hotels, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
These restaurants were known as Harvey Houses and there was one right here in Springfield.
Fred Harvey came up with the idea for the Harvey House because he had been working on the railroad and noticed that food service in the railroad industry was messy and unorganized, says Richard Crabtree, a Springfield historian.
“He proposed the idea of starting up the Harvey House chains. The problem he ran into was that the guys that he hired getting in brawls and drinking a lot. So some of the wives stepped in and said that they would work for him,” says Crabtree.
They advertised in newspapers to hire Harvey Girls. The pay was $17 a month with a dorm and work attire provided, says Crabtree.
“People loved being known as a Harvey Girl, it was something of great respect.”
Springfield’s Harvey House
Springfield was once home to a Harvey House that sat inside the Frisco Train Station on the corner of Mill and Main streets in downtown Springfield.
That station was demolished in the ’70s but the original floor of the Harvey House still remains as does some of the original brick from the full station.
Richard Crabtree has tons of pictures from the stations’ heyday and told me what life was like at the station in the 1900s.
“This area was the original station for the Kansas City, Fort Scott, and Gulf Railroad. That came in here in 1874. By 1882 they had built a beautiful station that was all brick, very Victorian looking. At the other end, we would have the Harvey House. And the Harvey House was a wooden house down there,” says Crabtree about how the original train station and Harvey House looked.
He goes on to talk about how an influx of people coming to the station inspired them to make the station bigger and bring the Harvey House inside the station.
“They were trying to create an image that was not seen in other restaurants. They wanted to see this was a safe place, consistently good food, you’re always going to get somebody happy to wait on you,” says Crabtree.
Crabtree says that this was helpful during World War I when the girls saw a lot of soldiers coming and may not have come back so they wanted the girls to be some of the last smiling faces they got to see.
Crabtree goes on to talk about that as the railroad died out in Springfield, the Harvey House did not. By the 1950s, Crabtree says that people would come to the Harvey House on Sunday afternoons after church.
“Anybody who’s been there, you sit down with them for a while and talk, you’re going to hear some wonderful stories.”
I searched the KORL10 archives and found this video below from a story we did of the demolition of the Frisco Depot.
Coming up in September the St. Louis Union Station will be hosting a 125-anniversary celebration for Harvey railroad workers and the Harvey Girls. The event will have author Stephen Fried who wrote a New York bestselling book about Fred Harvey.
If you or someone you know was or is related to a Harvey Girl they are encouraging you to go to this free event. (I am encouraging you to email me so I can do a followup story about you.)
The event is on September 13th.