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Remembering the West’s Harvey Girls

SANTA FE, N.M. — The earliest days of the women’s movement were measured out in cups of coffee and ample slices of pie served with flair by the fresh-faced and flawless young ladies who ventured West in the days when ladies rarely ventured far from home and convention.

To serve hungry sojourners in the early days of railroad travel across the American frontier, thousands of these bright young women heeded the call to go West to seek their fortunes, serve food and forsake the rigid roles of their gender by becoming Harvey Girls.

“Women back then had very few options for employment. Waitresses were at the bottom of the social scale, barely a notch above a prostitute,” said Carolyn Meyer, Albuquerque author of about 60 historic novels for young adults. “Yet here were these courageous young girls taking off to heaven knows what in what was still the Wild West.”

The job of a waitress might not seem like a feminist achievement, but in the 1880s and for nearly seven decades to come, it was monumental. The Harvey Girls brought class to the once nefarious occupation, an iconic style to the Harvey House transcontinental railway restaurants and hotels in which they served and an adventure that their corseted and often impoverished lives had not before afforded.

They came a long way, baby, in more ways than one.

Meyer said she became intrigued by the story of the Harvey Girls while researching her newest novel, “Diary of a Waitress: The Not-So-Glamorous Life of a Harvey Girl,” to be published next month. During her research, she came across “The Harvey Girls: Opportunity Bound,” a documentary by filmmaker Katrina Parks, a University of New Mexico alumna. The documentary premiered in the summer of 2013; Meyer caught a showing of it in Belen that November and met Parks.

“I asked Katrina, are you going to do a premiere in Albuquerque, for heaven sakes?” Meyer recalls. “The next thing I know, I’m planning the premiere.”

To say the Albuquerque event, held last November at the KiMo Theater, was a success is an understatement. All 650 seats at the Downtown theater were filled, a few with former Harvey Girls. Another hundred or so disappointed patrons were turned away.

“We knew we had to do this again,” Meyer said.

And so they will this May.

This time, though, Meyer said she wants to invite as many former Harvey Girls and their families as she can attract.

“We want to make a big fuss over them,” she said.

Former Harvey Girls are invited to bring photographs and memorabilia to be scanned and archived by the Albuquerque Department of Cultural Affairs and the New Mexico History Museum. Parks, the filmmaker, would also like to meet with the “girls.”

This Harvey Girl-apalooza event also will include a reception, musical entertainment by guitarist Frank McCulloch, the reciting of a new poem for the occasion by city poet laureate Jessica Helen Lopez and a panel discussion with Meyer, Parks, local historian Richard Melzer and New Mexico History Museum curator Meredith Davidson.

Mayor Richard Berry and Gov. Susana Martinez have already proclaimed May 23 Harvey Girls Day, Meyer said.

Seats will be reserved this time so as to avoid the overflow but the event, sponsored by the city of Albuquerque, is free.

More details will be made available as the event nears, but Meyer said she is getting out the word early so that as many Harvey Girls as possible can make plans to attend and contact her in advance by email at (or call me and I will pass along your information).

The groundbreaking idea of hiring young women germinated right here in New Mexico when hotel magnate Fred Harvey sought a way to prevent the brawls that kept occurring at a Harvey House in Raton between rowdy clientele and the beleaguered servers, who were predominantly black men.

In 1945, Harvey Girls uniforms took a festive turn. This photo was taken at the Alvarado Hotel, a Harvey House in Albuquerque, now the site of the Alvarado Transportation Center. (Courtesy of Hilda Velarde Salas)

In 1945, Harvey Girls uniforms took a festive turn. This photo was taken at the Alvarado Hotel, a Harvey House in Albuquerque, now the site of the Alvarado Transportation Center. (Courtesy of Hilda Velarde Salas)

Surely, clientele wouldn’t punch a woman, especially if Harvey made sure his Harvey Girls were of high moral standards, he must have thought.

He was right.

Between 1883 and the late 1950s, some 100,000 women ages 18 to 30 from Midwestern farms and East Coast cities were hired to serve in the hundreds of Harvey House locations, 17 of which were in New Mexico.

“You’d be amazed at the number of people I’ve run into who tell me, ‘My grandmother/aunt/second cousin was a Harvey Girl,’ ” Meyer said.

Most of the Harvey House locations are long gone – the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, for instance. The chain long ago disbanded as railroad travel gave way to highways and airplanes. The last Harvey Girl hung up her apron some 60 years ago.

It’s worth remembering that these women did more than serve pies. They shared a pioneer spirit and shaped a path for the working woman and a place in the American frontier.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to to submit a letter to the editor.

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