Harvey Girls captured on the big screen
Tales about taming America’s Wild West don’t often include women. But, beginning in the 1880s, more than 100,000 young women left home to work as waitresses in restaurants along the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway lines.
Armed with nothing more than the pioneering spirit and a desire to break away from the old life they were locked into, these women helped civilize the West as well as forever change society’s view of the working woman.
They were the Harvey Girls, who worked for Kansas entrepreneur Fred Harvey in his Harvey House restaurant chain.
Filmmaker Katrina Parks tells their story in a new documentary called “The Harvey Girls: Opportunity Bound,”
Its Belen premiere begins at noon Monday, Nov. 18., at the Belen Public Library, followed by a panel discussion. Panelists include Parks, who is the director, writer and executive editor; Thaddeus Homan, producer and editor; and Stephen Fried, author of “Appetite for America,” which has been called the definitive history of Fred Harvey.
Several Harvey Girls have been invited to the showing, which is free. Reservations are suggested as seating is limited.
Call the Belen Harvey House Museum at 861-0581 to reserve a seat. DVDs of the documentary also will be on sale after the screening.
Fred Harvey started his first eatery in 1875. It was a lunchroom in Topeka, Kan., for hungry passengers traveling the Santa Fe Railroad.
When the train companies merged, creating the AT&SF, Harvey expanded his business, situating his restaurants along the transcontinental railroad.
In 1885, after a rowdy brawl among diners in Raton, N.M., Harvey decided to bring in women as waitresses to “bring down the testosterone level,” Parks said at last month’s showing in Winslow, Ariz.
“It was an amazing opportunity for women to go west,” Parks said. “It became this radical thing for the time period.”
Her film notes these women were considered Harvey Girls, not waitresses. They were well-trained — it took a month to learn all the rules — and in their nun-like, black-and-white uniforms that covered them from head to toe, they also were well-respected women of the world.
While not prominently displayed in the documentary, the Belen Harvey House Museum and Maurine McMillan, long-time docent and former museum director, are integral to the film’s existence.
In fact, there would be no documentary — not by Katrina Parks, anyway — without the Belen connection.
The documentary’s beginnings date back to the late 1990s when Parks was getting her bachelor’s degree in fine arts at the University of New Mexico.
As part of an art course, she was sent to Belen to work with world-renowned artist Judy Chicago who, in turn, sent her to the Harvey House Museum.
McMillan happened to be the docent that afternoon and gave her a tour.
“(Maurine) took me through the exhibit … we might have gone upstairs. I can’t remember all that we did that day,” Parks said last month at the La Posada Harvey House, a few hours after the documentary was shown at Winslow’s historic theater.
“I’d never heard of the Harvey Girls,” she said. “I’d never heard of Fred Harvey.”
But, she said, “when I heard about 100,000 young women going West … I thought someone should make a documentary of this.”
That’s exactly what she did, though it took her more than a decade to complete.
“It’s been a long road in the making,” she told the Winslow audience.
When Parks started making the documentary, she was in her early 20s. Her last name was Drabkin and she was a blonde.
In the decade in-between, she married, had a son and, through it all, pecked away at the film, capturing interviews of former Harvey Girls at reunions or conferences, wherever and whenever she could find them.
She got her degree from UNM and moved to California, where she caught the filmmaking bug. While a student at San Francisco State University, getting her master’s degree in film production, that old notion about a Harvey Girls documentary began to take shape.
She returned to Belen in August 2000, with a crew of two, one on the camera, the other for sound. Her first interviews were with six former Harvey Girls who, along with McMillan, gathered at the old Harvey House to retell their stories.
(In their ’70s and early ’80s at the time, their stories were caught on film while the window of opportunity was still open. McMillan said the two from Belen, Irene Burns Armstrong and Eva Fuqua, have died. Billie Miller Rodgers, 94, of Los Lunas, is a home hospice patient. Her son, Jim, said he hopes to attend the premiere. McMillan has invited the two Albuquerque women who are still alive to the event.)
In the film, McMillan talks of former Harvey Girls reliving their strict interview process.
Armstrong recalls how women didn’t have a chance of getting hired if they wore too much makeup or chewed gum.
“You just didn’t do those things,” she says emphatically. “You were expected to act like a lady,” Armstrong says, recalling how only two of the nine interviewed with her got the job.
The documentary got traction in 2004 when Parks attended a national gathering of Harvey Girls in San Diego, Calif. It was there she said she saw the bigger picture of what Fred Harvey and these Harvey Girls meant to the settling of the West.
It was also when she met Stephen Fried, an investigative journalist in the early stages of writing a book about Fred Harvey.
Fried’s book “Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire that Civilized the Wild West” came out in 2011. It has been described as the definitive work on Fred Harvey and what his restaurants along the Santa Fe Railway did to forever change America and its eating habits.
The two often found themselves attending Harvey Girl reunions and other gatherings that attracted Fred Harvey-related people and memorabilia.
The “Fredosphere” is how Fried affectionately labels these types of events.
Since the publication of Fried’s book and the completion of Parks’ documentary, the two have joined forces to expand the “Fredosphere” by promoting the impact of Fred Harvey and the Harvey Girls, as well as promoting each other.
Their first road trip, in June of this year, took them to Kansas City, Mo. — the original headquarters of the Fred Harvey empire — for the very first showing of “The Harvey Girls: Opportunity Bound.”
By the time the entourage got to Winslow, about a dozen PBS stations, including New Mexico’s station KNME, had picked up the Harvey Girls documentary. It will be shown at 7 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 21.
In Winslow, Fried told the audience he thinks Americans are more interested in “Americana” and holding onto the simpler ways of yesteryear in today’s post-9/11 world.
He also spoke of the difficulties in finding photographs of the Harvey Girls.
“The Harvey Girls worked hard, gave good service and did not draw attention to themselves,” Fried said.
Plus, the railroad wasn’t interested in taking pictures of women working.
There are lots of pictures of fully-set dining tables in empty dining rooms, but not many of the women working in those dining rooms, he said.
Parks told the audience that, as the years passed, she began realizing her own opportunity to record Harvey Girl memories was passing with the passing of these women.
“I kind of realized that this documentary was the last opportunity, really, that America, the world, would have to have these stories preserved for future generations,” she said.