On the trail of Fred

I might have accidentally been almost a Fredhead long before the term was coined. When I was 8 or 9 years old, I made my first trip “out west” with my parents. That trip kicked off a life-long love affair with the mountains, the high desert, native arts, sunsets, buildings (I didn't know enough to call it “architecture”), and pretty much all things western.

One of my mother's sisters worked at a Fred Harvey restaurant in the 1960s, one of the five Tollway Oases constructed up over the pavement of the Illinois Tollway in the Chicago area. My mother and I went to eat there a few times, sitting up over the toll road, having a nice meal and seeing my aunt at work. Existing at least in my memory, there was a Fred Harvey over-the-highway restaurant in Oklahoma, too, but I might have dreamed up that one.

My parents had put in a decade of traveling together before I was born, and Fred Harvey must have come up in their recollections that they told me. I seemed to grow up hearing the name of the company, even though I was too young to recall anything even close to their hey-day. Even my parents, traveling in the late 1930s through mid 1940s, only enjoyed the company's services in its declining years. But then as I studied Native American history and women's social history for my master's degree, there were all those great photos and stories of the Fred Harvey “Indian Detours” and the Harvey native art collection.

Fred Harvey's story is one of the great “emigrant to U.S. makes good” tales. His restaurant experience as a young man, his early career with railroads, and his innate sense of how to serve the public combined with, frankly, perfect timing, to establish “Fred Harvey” as the hospitality operation from the late 1800s well into the Twentieth Century. If you haven't caught up with the story yet, do pick up a copy of Stephen Fried's book, Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West – One Meal at a Time. Another enjoyable read is The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West by Lesley Poling-Kempes. And of course you can rely on Google to find you many interesting websites.

So here I am on the Southwest Chief, Amtrak's version of the legendary Super Chief, following the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway route west. Last night I switched from a commuter train out of St. Louis to the Chief at the magnificent Kansas City Union Station. And I felt sad and sort of ashamed that the city of St. Louis (not far from my home in Illinois) chose to abandon its wonderful Union Station for an “Amshack” down under the highway (a little reminiscent of a set design from West Side Story).

This morning in the train's dining car I thought about how much we have Fred Harvey to thank for travel dining service. Even in the Amtrak age, we still have a white tablecloth and some china. But Mr. Harvey's famed inspections might not go so well here. Paper napkins. No pitcher of hot water for a tea refill. And coffee and hot tea served in paper cups!

Even the Amtrak still stops at some of the cities and towns that the original railroad stopped at, offering “Meals by Fred Harvey,” including Topeka, Newton, and Hutchinson, Kansas; LaJunta and Trinidad, Colorado; and Raton, Trinidad, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Some of the Fred Harvey establishments were lunch and dining rooms adjacent to railway tracks. Some were hotels and some were restaurants within the landmark big-city train stations.

Photo opportunities are somewhat limited when you're on the train, but I captured a few this trip. In the 22 years I've been making the St. Louis – Albuquerque train trip (daughter lives in Albuquerque!), I think I've photographed the elegant, lonely structure that is La Castaneda every year. Every trip, as the Southwest Chief stops for passengers in Las Vegas, it ends up positioned perfectly for me to get a great straight-on shot of La Castaneda. But oh no, not this year. But the happy news about La Castaneda is that Allan Affeldt and Tina Mion, owners of the marvelous, beautifully-restored La Posada in Winslow, Arizona, have purchased La Castaneda and will likely work the same magic in LVNM.

And where am I going, anyway? Am I just traveling this route and rambling on about Fred Harvey's legacy? Well, I suppose that could happen, but I do have a destination (besides a great visit with daughter, son-in-law, and co-in-laws!). Tomorrow, Fred Harvey events abound in Santa Fe. A new exhibit, “Setting the Standard: The Fred Harvey Company and Its Legacy,” opens at the New Mexico History Museum. Showings of the documentary, The Harvey Girls: Opportunity Bound, are scheduled several times throughout the day. Stephen Fried, author of Appetite for America will be on hand. Fredheads, Route 66 aficionados, and history geeks of all kinds are gathering for the day. Those that live in the American West and those that wish they did. Professors and students. Writers and readers. Of Route 66. Of the railroads. Of the Harvey legacy. All trails, but especially this one, lead to Fred this weekend.


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