This article by columnist Nancy Johnson first appeared in the Deming Headlight in March 2005.
"Harvey House brought air of elegance to the Wild West. The first immigrants to this area were Navajo, Apaches, and Comanches, followed hundreds of years later by Spanish explorers. Soon after there came Spanish soldiers, settlers, and priests.
"Trappers, miners and cattlemen joined the mix -- most arriving after New Mexico became a territory of the United States. Along came the Pony Express and the Butterfield Stages.
"Railroads reached the southern part of the state in 1881, and began carrying away ore and cattle.
"Oftentimes, they brought with them homesteaders and those travelers too fragile -- or too wise -- to ride 2,000 miles non-stop on a rushing stagecoach.
"With trains, there was a demand for good food services and clean rest stops for travelers.
"Still later, there was a need for hotels along the way to accommodate early tourists anxious to see the Wild West and its wide-open spaces populated by buffalo, cowboys and Indians. A young Englishman, Fred Harvey, had just the answer for all this with his Harvey House restaurants and hotels, which provided good food, at reasonable prices, served in spotlessly clean buildings by immaculate and efficient waitresses. And the Harvey Girls were born. They became an important part of the settlement and refinement of the heretofore Wild West.
"There probably isn't a single young woman alive today who would agree to work as a Harvey Girl with all the rules, regulations, and long hours. First of all, every applicant had to be single. A six-week training period for the job was their introduction to strict regimentation that the job, and Mr. Harvey, demanded. Classes stressed absolute cleanliness of hands, hair, body, and uniform.
"White aprons worn over their long-sleeved dresses with long skirts must be freshly laundered, starched and pressed daily -- with a back-up apron available in case the first one was soiled during the day.
"A Harvey Girl's hair was to be pulled back into a twist or a bun. No fussy ribbons, makeup, or jewelry was allowed. Shoes were black, high-topped and polished daily.
"Those who passed the class could choose a location and, if there was an opening, they boarded a train for their new job. If they had no preference or if there was no opening, they were sent where they were needed. The contract was for six months in that location.
"In the 1800s, there was a dark prejudice in this country against single working women. Girls who had finished their schooling were expected to remain at home until marriage. Those in small towns could earn a little spending money by sewing, raising chickens and selling eggs or, if the family had extra milk, they might sell butter. The money could buy linens and embroidery thread for their hope chests. Farm and ranch girls were stuck. They had no way to earn money and there was limited availability of single men. All this leads one to believe that only four types of girls became Harvey Girls: orphans with no place to go; girls from impoverished families who couldn't afford another mouth to feed; husband hunters; and those of a rebellious nature, dying to escape the strict confines of home. The last group had the greatest difficulty conforming.
"Imagine a young girl 18 to 25 years of age who most likely had never traveled more than 20 miles from home, and had met few strangers of either sex in her entire life. She has finished training, traveled hundreds of miles by train to a town where she knew not a soul, stepped off the train and walked into a Harvey House to be met by the manager -- and the hostile, suspicious stares of locals who mentally questioned not only her morals, but those of a family that would allow a young lady so much freedom.
"Upstairs, above the restaurant, is a large dormitory where she will share space with her sister Harvey Girls, two to a room, and be supervised by a house mother. The rules, regulations and regimentation does not end here. She must work seven days a week, usually split shifts, and may not date (if it can be called that) any man not approved by management. There was a strict curfew. However, for a husband hunter, the prospects were wonderful. The 1870 census showed 172,000 females to 385,000 males in the Southwest. Her salary of $17.50 a month plus tips, included room, board, and laundry -- which was sent by train back to Topeka -- and a train pass.
"At the end of the six-month contract, most girls used their rail passes to go home to visit family, often persuading sisters and friends to join the sorority. It was not unusual for three or four women from the same family to work for Harvey. When they returned from their vacations at home, many had formed such close friendships with coworkers they were unable to transfer to a new station, no matter how desirable the location. However, if another location had a large affair scheduled, it was not unusual for Harvey Girls to be called in from their posts a hundred or so miles away to help out.
"During the Dust Bowl and Depression of the 1920s and '30s, Jesse and Addie Park worked together in Vaughn, N.M., for a year, then transferred to Barstow, Calif., because they heard that Harvey Girls there were given one day a week off. Jesse later married a railroad man, but Addie lived at Casa del Desierto, the elegant Barstow house, for the next 40 years until she was 61. During that time they had managed to bring their entire large family to California and assist their brothers in obtaining jobs on the railroad.
"Little country girls became well-traveled, sophisticated women thanks to Harvey Girls and the free railroad passes. From their earliest days, these young women helped immeasurably to tame the Wild West. They married farmers, ranchers, miners and railroad men, and their children became the true Western men and women."
Nancy Johnson is a local columnist who enjoys researching the history of this area. Her columns appear in the Headlight every Thursday.