On the trail of Fred Harvey, tamer of the Wild West

Cecilie Gamst Berg:

Driving from New York to Kansas City with Harvey has not only been fun and a visual feast, it’s also been an education in his family’s illustrious history, in which the El Tovar Hotel featured prominently. Situated a few steps from the edge of the Grand Canyon, it is probably the shiniest and most famous jewel in the crown, or rather string, of hotels, restaurants and shops established by Fred Harvey, Steve’s great-great grandfather.

Frederick Henry Harvey was born in England in 1835 and became a naturalised American soon after landing on Ellis Island at the age of 17. Intelligent, capable and possessing a furious work ethic, he started out as a simple “pot walloper” (dishwasher) in a New York restaurant and grew to preside over a mighty hospitality empire, revolutionising the way Americans travelled, ate and went sightseeing. He became known as the “civiliser” of an, at the time, extremely uncivilised and very wild west. Harvey developed the first restaurant chain, the first “fast food” outlets (although he used only the freshest, choicest ingredients – as opposed to the highly processed cuisine we associate with the phrase today), the first tourism industry in the American southwest, the first all-female workforce and the first company merchandise and postcards. He also organised the first guided tours into “ethnic” (native American) territories in the southwest.

His empire stretched over 80 cities and towns in 17 states and, by 1948, 47 years after his death, the name Fred Harvey (his signature was the company logo) was attached to some 200 establishments, 29 of which were hotels. He drove a wedge of starched tablecloths, folded napkins and polished silverware into the rough-andready world in which cowboys and Indians were shooting it up and in which baked beans and rock-hard bread were considered a gourmet meal.

Today, however, Fred Harvey is no longer a household name, except among the people who live along the railroad routes he was instrumental in transforming, Hollywood musical buffs and the group of Harveyana enthusiasts who call themselves Fredheads.

It is the latter, as well as assorted members of the Harvey clan itself, that Steve and I are dashing to meet.